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

Labels: , ,

Roller Coaster, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Saturday, March 24, 2007

Conversations at Pleasure Beach Blackpool:

Kid: "I want to go on the Roller Coaster"
Parent: "Which one?"
Kid: "No, I want to go on the Roller Coaster"
Parent: "Yes, which one?"
Parent: "Fine. If you're going to be silly, then next time we'll just leave you at home shall we? I knew we shouldn't have come today, right from the moment that you broke that vase this morning..."

At the Pleasure Beach, it's not always obvious what ride is what. And which bit of track belongs to which. And whether the one you are looking at is one that you have already been on or not. Ask a random visitor in the park how many roller coasters there are in total, and you stand a good chance of either getting a wrong answer or a strange look. It may be fine enough for those of us acquainted with the park and its rides, but to everyone else it can be confusing.

It is the unique beauty of the place though that means that you can follow non-descript narrow paths, and stumble across truly iconic rides that feel like great discoveries. The Roller Coaster fits into the category with ease, the entrance being located halfway down a stairwell, next to a road and with very little presence. However, those who venture in will be greeted with one of the best rides at the park.

To start at the beginning, the red and white striped station building may hint at a male barber shop of epic proportions, but is in fact one of the largest coaster stations at the Pleasure Beach.

In a fit of irony though, despite the gargantuan space, you will still find yourself squeezing sideways through narrow queue grids and turnstiles as the majority of the building is taken up storing trains that are not running with a very small corner housing the queue and boarding platform.

Once you are through the turnstile, the platform gets thinner still. There's no air gates or row dividers, mainly because there is simply no space for them. This means that everyone is encouraged to move as far down as they can so as they prevent empty seats and does result in an inability to choose your row.

Inevitably, the amount of people the train can accommodate do not fit on the platform, and when the train rolls in and everyone takes their seats, the gaps are filled up by the operator.

Three cars hold eight people in four rows, though it's a tight fit. In front of you, another obscure path follows the track round to the left. To your right is the miniature platform you have just come from, and to your left is an old 1920s coaster carriage from the Velvet Coaster, which burnt down in 1932. The Roller Coaster uses the old ride's lift hill, but from there-on follows its own course and plan.

Ever since the ride opened in 1933, we have had the pleasure of riding the Roller Coaster without any form of restraint, relying on guests to choose not to be indescribably stupid during the ride. Sadly, the modern world has now caught up with this blip in history, and 2006 has seen the introduction of one seatbelt for each row.

Otherwise, the cars are furnished simply with a deep cushion for both riders, two grab handles and a reminder plaque to remain seated that is annoying located right where your knee should go. Even the armrests on each side are padded, giving the impression that we are going to be rolling around in our own personal armchair.

Even though there are no middle dividers, two adults will find it a squeeze and on quieter days, separate rows would be recommended. The exterior of the train is decorated in a rather dated red, yellow and white livery that makes them appear distinctly retro.

With the thrust of the brake handle, we are released down the slope and round to the left passing a tree and Beaver Creek and the Narrowest House In The World on the right. Engaging on the lift, the legendary clank of the chain hauls us up to the top where we duck down to our right to begin the journey.

After a quick straight section, the first drop pulls the train down a shallow dip, and we whiz past the supports of the return leg before climbing again for the next dip. These dips are not packed with forces, but offer an entertaining acceleration downward, and a pleasant whip in the valleys.

The drops and climbs continue past the Zipper Dipper and Space Invader 2, where the latter's building masks a sharp swooping drop to the right and the resulting zoom past a beer and fountain garden in what is surely the highlight of the ride. We then pay our regards to the Chinese Maze and the Steeplechase, both of which pass beneath us during the elevated turnaround.

The stretch back to the start runs parallel with our outgoing journey, but consists of some smaller bumps and hops that provide the short bursts of thrills for the kids. Still with plenty of speed, we spring into a long dark tunnel, where we are sharply slowed down by a set of breaks, before we turn ninety degrees to our left and re-enter the station, where the operator grapples with the lever to bring us to a smooth halt by the exit platform.

The exit path disappears down a tunnel before reconnecting near the entrance of the ride, the scene where our adventure begun. The Roller Coaster has an enviable position in the Blackpool ride hierarchy, as it does not need to have any delusions of grandeur. It's not the signature ride by a long stretch, and its only real remit is to entertain those who ride, and this it achieves with distinction.

It's really not surprising that it went for so long without restraints. Whilst it offers a brilliant sensation of speed, this is actually mainly to do with the fact that we are constantly passing buildings, other rides or even another part of the Roller Coaster itself in close proximity.

The drops are not enough to send anyone into a flight of fear, but strangely manage to meet the needs of the younger riders who are not yet brave enough to sample the bigger rides such as the Grand National or the Big Dipper and those bigger kids among us who appreciate the atmosphere and sense of fun that they provide.

In my view, the new seatbelts do not harm the ride experience. Whilst they are checked, it seems to be left to rider discretion about whether they tighten them up with kids, or have them worn mainly as a reminder not to stand up. And yes, you can still enjoy the unique sensation of sitting facing sideways should you wish to do so.

Onlookers may view the layout (or what can be seen of it) as plain vanilla, but out of view to most spectators and even the riders before the last minute, is the wonderful drop entrance to the turn around and again into the final straight.

Passing over the maze offers not only a brief respite to those who need it, but an enjoyable glance over two separate attractions, and even the possibility of memorising the maze layout should with to try your luck in it later on.

Every single visitor who finds the Roller Coaster and chooses to ride will be rewarded with an entertaining jolly around the back of the Pleasure Beach. As the ride does not claim to do anything other then entertain, there is nothing to criticise it for (bar perhaps the cramped waiting platform) and therefore means that the suggestion to "ride the Roller Coaster" is probably the most sensible comment made in the day.

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:

  • A fast-paced nostalgia trip offering views of many other rides
  • Entertaining enough for grown-ups without scaring the kids
  • A fantastic step between the Zipper Dipper and the Big Dipper

Bad points:

  • Cramped waiting area and narrow entrance platform
  • Limited choice of seats due to the loading procedures

Labels: ,

G Force, Drayton Manor
Saturday, March 24, 2007

Like so many parks in the UK, Drayton Manor's new ride selection seems to be based on the park's location. The difference here being that while height and planning permission is still a consideration, the park is situated ominously close to Alton Towers, a park that is rightly or wrongly regarded as the holy grail of British theme parks. Our version of Disneyland, if you will.

G ForceHow does a comparatively small sized park deal with that in terms of keeping their target audience visiting them?

Drayton Manor's answers over the seasons have been firmly routed in 'gimmick' territory. To rival Alton's super-new-fangled B&M inverted coaster Nemesis, 1994 saw an Intamin stand up coaster, Shockwave. Sadly, age has not been as kind to Shockwave as it has been to the Staffordshire monster and along with most stand up rides has been relegated to the uncomfortable 'if it's quiet' spot. Other gimmicks have included Maelstrom and the hat trick of Apocalypse to varying degrees of success.

G Force is the latest in the line of gimmicks designed to wow the public with a design that many will have imagined only possible in their dreams. Replacing the waspish Klondike Gold Mine from Pinfari, Maurer Sohne were drafted in to create a ride that looked like it had come straight from the A4 drawing pad of a primary school child during art lesson. Maurer's latest invention, the so called X car was also called upon to career around the inverted mess of a lift hill and the suitably twisted layout.

G ForceOpened in a blaze of publicity in 2005, by the boy band G4 (whose career is surely now limited), G Force sported one of the much talked about trains, with the promise of a second train to follow.

The ride is not themed as such, more styled to give it a modern minimalist and open plan design. The track weaves over several paths with silver fences at just the right height to allow marvellous Kodak opportunities without inviting the local village idiot to enter the neatly lawned ride area.

The ride nestles between Maelstrom and the Black Revolver, which now has its entrance at the front of it's building. The queue and loading platform sit alongside the cable car station inside a ginormous grey cube that looks like it should be whizzing around space attacking the USS Enterprise.

Whilst criminally plain and boring on the outside, apart from two large holes, more care has been taken on the inside... well, marginally. The ground floor features a labyrinth of scaffolding poles with a couple of chains missing, causing prospective riders to get thoroughly lost and start climbing or ducking fences as they attempt to traverse their way towards the corner staircase to reach the station on the upper level.

G ForceFollowing the bang up-to-date style of the attraction, the cavernous queuing maze features cool trance music combined with two very large screens, onto which projections of a psychedelic pattern are displayed. The patterns are created, supposedly, from the sound of the music you hear (Windows Media Player style) and together give the hall a weirdly calming touch and takes the edge off the overly industrial cube and metal fences to turn what could be hell on earth into a fairly pleasant queuing environment.

Those who look to the roof of the hall may fail to be impressed by two large metal knobs that on first glimpse seem to serve no purpose other then to add yet more silver to the metal building.

Periodically though, their reason for being becomes more then apparent, as with a sustained eardrum-burstingly loud cracking noise, a comparatively small purple electric spark reverberates between them annoying many and impressing few.

Upstairs, the double-glazed loading deck takes us straight to the platform without more queuing. The deck is enclosed, but with two large holes in the walls to allow the train to soon roll in less then a minute after it left. There are no air gates, however your passage to the train, and the track, is blocked by a steep step which you wait behind until ready to go.

G ForceLoading is easy thanks to the complete lack of train interior. It is effectively a rolling platform with some seats bolted on. Pulling the heavy bars across your torso though is no easy feat so may be best left to the staff who are fully trained in closing your personal straight jacket.

With little warning, you are off and speed down a small drop that will quickly associate you with your restraint before engaging on the lift and/or first inversion.

There is a small jolt as the train starts to power through the loop, and the sensation is a peculiar mix of the familiar coaster vertical loop and the unfamiliar slow steady speed at which it is encountered. The train is well past the top before it speeds up, freeing itself of the chain and proceeding to a large, narrow bunny hop that would give pretty good airtime if only the restraints allowed it.

The train heads straight into the second more traditional loop now, which in turn sends the train careering into an over banked turn before a few more helices deliver it into the break run where all remaining speed is quickly sapped out of the train and it comes to a complete halt.

Despite there not being any train in front there is a brief pause before you are motored into the station to exit down round the outside of the cube towards the on ride photography unit.

G ForceSo does this gimmick resemble the reliable Dyson of the coaster world, or does it reek of the mobile ring tone company of destiny?

To answer that, lets look at its two points of interest, the two elements that it sells itself with.

Firstly, the bizarre contraption that is the lift. Boy does it look the part, and you can scarcely walk past a train encountering the lift without watching and taking in the yelps of unexpected riders who were simply not prepared for what feelings it would produce.

And with good reason too, the lift provides a unique sensory experience that no other coaster in the country comes close too. By sitting in the open plan train too, the sensation of having your shoulders and legs un-hindered adds to the surreal nature of the element. The train doesn't speed up until well past the point most riders will be expecting causing most cries towards the end of the ordeal where people subconsciously reckon they've had enough.

The second claim to fame is the trains themselves.

2005 saw several rides in the UK boast about their restraints, or lack of them. However, Maurer's claim of a single lap bar is misleading. Calling the huge circular hinge a lap bar is like referring to a lion as a tabby.

G ForceThe restraint is more comparable to the bottom half of a stable door and not only covers your lap but a large size of your chest and stomach too. In fact, the sensation around the ride is that it is holding you in by grabbing hold of your torso, and that is a fairly unpleasant experience.

They are incredibly restrictive, and unlike the S&S lap bars that hide away and let you forget you are restrained at all, they make themselves known throughout the ride by either killing potential airtime or committing the worst atrocity of all; closing through the ride.

You see, again unlike the S&S designs found on Rush and Slammer amongst others, there is no system on G Force to lock the bar in place once the train leaves the station. This means they are free to ratchet down during the ride and in the bursts of g-force encountered they quickly find those extra notches that you never knew existed and become even tighter.

The net result of this is a frequent lot of passengers on the brake run begging for mercy from the now ultra-tight restraints.

So whilst one gimmick fills its remit the other not only fails but can actively harm the rest of the ride experience. As for the rest of the track after the lift, the ride is so small and cramped that there doesn't seem to be any chance for the train to quickly accelerate or do anything exciting between the elements, which give a strangely muted result.

This is a shame as new ideas and contraptions while not perhaps being the safest bet around do give parks a character and atmosphere of their own - something to be applauded most strongly.

So, like sifting through the terms and conditions of a supposedly wonderful free prize draw, you may find that the restraints and lack-lustre design on G Force after the headline opening a bit too much of a hassle then you were willing to put up with for this particular gimmick.

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:

  • Clean, fresh styled presentation offers a pleasant pre-ride experience
  • Open plan trains make loading quick and easy

Bad points:

  • Poor restraints can be unpleasant or even painful during the ride
  • The ride after the loop feels cramped and lacks energy

Labels: , ,

Rage, Adventure Island
Friday, March 23, 2007

The British Seaside Resort is fast fading away. Not by winds and costal erosion mind, but by the lure of foreign climates and inland theme parks. Some of our once mighty kings of the coast have either vanished into developers' pockets or are rusting away in a rot of false optimism. Only very few can actually say that they are storming ahead with their plans for the future.

For those in the south of the UK, the only real hope on the horizon lies at Southend on Sea, where the last decade or so has transformed a horrible weather-beaten and faded resort in to a frenzy of activity mixing old favourites with a dash of the modern. Whilst the fun-filled days of the Kuursal may stay as distant memories, improvements to the seafront have created a pleasant frontage to the sea with a new observation tower, entrance to the longest "pleasure pier" in the country and path up to the town centre.

However, to really cement its continued honour for Londoners' seaside hot spot of choice, all eyes must be on Adventure Island. For some years "Peter Pan's Adventure Island" provided a haven for kids next to the entrance of the pleasure pier. In the coming years they unceremoniously dropped Peter Pan (thank goodness he has the ability to fly) and were simply Adventure Island. Rides were not big, but almost un-erringly fun. Two Zierer junior coasters provided the cream to a crop of nicely presented rides.

Unlike other parks of its ilk, Adventure Island saw fit to plant around their rides, theme them and create a nice atmosphere. Even fairground spinners got the treatment, with an impressive Egyptian-themed Twist and Scorpion Troika. More recent additions have carried on in the same vein with a Zamperla Disk-O, Pinfari Mini-Mega and various home-concocted attractions that whilst may not have had the same presentational accolades of a few years previous, were still nicely decorated and well situated.

Seeming to strike a nice balance between family rides and some spinners for the more adventurous, rumours were always rife that the park wanted more. Ideas and plans came and went, but 2007 has seen the park leap with gay abandon straight into the deep end of the pool and install what, to the general public and local residents, must look like the most terrifying ride imaginable.

Gerstlauer Eurofighters have been doing excellent business these days, so whilst perhaps its installation is not the greatest surprise to those in the know, its sheer difference from any ride around it must prompt fears that it could turn out to be something of a painful belly flop. But nothing ventured, nothing gained - and the rides success will surely affect future choices and installations at the park, so lets look at newest addition to the Adventure Island family.

Just in case anyone wasn't struck by the sight of people lumbering around a vertical lift and beyond-vertical drop, the park have painted the ride and its tower in pink and yellow to ensure it is very very noticeable. Clearly seen from the towns High Street, the ride acts a beacon pointing the way to Adventure Island.

The entrance to the ride slices between the lift and the drop, and a plain metal ramp takes you to the metal hut that now adds silver to the pink and yellow scheme. The cars are quaint affairs; two rows seating four people each mean that only eight can experience our adventure at a time. Just in case you hadn't guessed, the cars are, yep… pink and yellow. Brandishing our wristband in front of the staff, air gates let us through to our seats. Any excited riders will soon be deflated though, as the most boring and dull voice at any amusement park in the world ever tells us to pull our restraints down and buckle up. As has become expected of Gerstlauer, the restraints are roomy and comfortable.

Without delay, we are off out of the station, and settle at the base of the lift until the car before us has cleared the brakes. Then, with a whir of motors, we slowly tip onto our back and work our way up the vertical lift hill. Those with butterflies will be squirming violently as the trip to the top of the tower seems to last an eternity. At the top, we are swiftly tipped back to upright, then without pausing, straight onto our fronts and beyond as we are flicked over the top and down the drop. Before we even realise it, we are back onto our backs and heading around the enormous vertical loop.

The small car takes the loop fairly slowly, and causes us to drop into our restraints at the top before we run down the other side and head into the overbanked turn that twists us around onto our right side before speeding down a ramp and onto our left where a long helix then fails to level out and in fact tips us into an inline twist to our left. Still with plenty of speed, we scream down to our right before an exhilarating sharp change of direction takes us around an upward helix to our left and into the scarily quiet brake run.

Whilst we might be whooping with delight, the voice with the charisma of a golf ball is back to take the shine off our experience by repeatedly telling us to undo our belts before we return to the station and everyone exits to the left.

It's a good ride - it really is. Blissfully smooth throughout, and with the view from the front providing track that literally drops away from you it is obvious that the clientele are enjoying it. It is perhaps a little short, but the plus side to that is that there are no dead spots whatsoever. The 97 degree flick at the top of the drop lunges you forward as though toppling off a diving board. The drop itself is good but without the long protracted rush of rides like oblivion, it is over before you really get the sensation of hurtling towards the ground.

The really strange thing about the ride though, is that it seems that people are enjoying it despite the parks efforts. You won't be able to ride Rage without seeing a crowd gathered around the lift watching this bizarre contraption in awe and amazement. It's just as well they are looking up really, as the bottom of the ride is a catastrophe. Balanced on temporary looking metal foundations, an exceptionally large space once occupied by the Raging River log flume is now left redundant and with no decoration save some unpainted fencing looks fairly grim.

The park is promoting Rage as following a superhero style, but you'll never guess this unless you look at a promotional banner for the ride. To everyone else, it looks like a modern art sculpture of Mr Blobby. Metal fences and pot plants do not a garden make.

Having installed speakers in the station and brake run, the park then fails to big-up and market your experience in any way, and with a voice that sounds like it is commentating on the dullest snooker match imaginable and about to go comatose, the sense of drama just never begins. One gets the impression they are treating the ride as though it were another Zierer junior coaster, which it most certainly is not.

It would be tempting to suggest that everything that Gerstlauer have provided fits the bill, and everything provided by Adventure Island falls short of expectation. The park now owns a big ride of great accolade, which competes against a different level compared to their other rides. If they could match this with a presentation and drama to suit it, they will have a popular hit on their hands.

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:

  • The lift and drop are an impressive sight on the skyline
  • Comfortable restraints, and a smooth ride throughout
  • Perfectly paced and ends before it runs out of ideas

Bad points:

  • Decoration and colour scheme may cause illness
  • No sense of drama and/or fun pre and post ride

Labels: , ,

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

Labels: , ,

Wild Mouse, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Listen to Pleasure Beach Blackpool's publicity department and you'll be told that the park is home to the most terrifying roller coaster the planet has to offer, a ride so extreme that it will strike fear into even the most seasoned coaster rider and reduce them to a blubbing, quivering wreck. Ladies and gentlemen, I can confirm that this claim is 100% correct.

Well, more or less. You see, when the park or the media make this claim, it is invariably The Big One which is the subject of their attention. The ride which REALLY terrifies coaster enthusiasts is a woodie, was built way back in 1955, and sits just over the other side of the park. Visually, it doesn't exactly hijack the attention, but just sits in the background, quiet as a mouse...

The Wild Mouse is easily the smallest of BPB's "adult" coasters, in fact it would not be difficult for first time visitors to mistake it for a family ride. The track is all packed into more-or-less a cube, bar one turn which pops out over the (rarely used) queue pen. The height and speed stats are pretty unimpressive, and the drops are tiddlers compared to most of the park's coasters. So, I hear you ask, what is it about this ride which has sends shivers down the spines of so many people?

Let's begin at the beginning. Assuming that you can negotiate the entrance, through a turnstile the width of your average cat flap, your carriage awaits. This is real comic book Soapbox Derby stuff, as the cars look like they were originally made out of an old crate. The front of the car is decorated with a mouse face, and each has its individual name painted on (there's no Mickey, unsurprisingly). Beyond the facade, it may not be obvious to first-timers that, as with most Wild Mouse rides, the wheels are positioned towards the rear of the car, creating the illusion that you are about to fly off the track at every turn.

Unlike recent steel versions of the ride, passengers sit one in front of the other, Log Flume style, which is never a very comfy way to ride. To make matters worse, you rarely ride alone, as the operators will insist you pair up - if you don't have a riding partner, they'll find you one from the queue. Little thought is applied in the process, and I suspect that if two Sumo wrestlers were in the queue, they would be forced to squeeze in together (any protests made to the staff are ignored). You are "held in" by a seat belt although, given that the cars are about as roomy as a Corn Flake packet, it's quite redundant - after all, it's difficult enough to leave the car after the ride, never mind during it!

From the station, two 90 degree turns lead to the lift hill. The usual sign, "Do Not Stand Up" takes on new meaning half way up, as a piece of track actually passes so close to your head that you could easily reach up and have your fingers removed by another car. At the top comes the first of many "near miss" turns, as the car nearly ploughs straight into the turret of the nearby Ghost Train. Time to take in the view of the southern half of the park before the ride really gets going.

If you're unlucky, the car will slow slightly just before you turn into the first drop, due to the recently installed trim brakes dotted around the circuit. These are not used too often, fortunately, though there seems to no obvious logic dictating whether they are in use on any given occasion. Even if the brakes are on, the car really launches itself into the steep first drop, the proximity of the structure giving a real feeling of speed. From here on the ride becomes a tangled mess, relentlessly charging through the most extreme coaster track around.

Highlights are legion, first is the zig-zag section, common to all Wild Mice, where the car darts forward and backward, gathering speed as it goes. Later in the ride, you will encounter two utterly manic drops, both well hidden among the structure, followed by the aforementioned turnaround over the heads of the crowd, which gives the surreal impression that you really have "burst" out of the ride's structure for a moment. Best of all, you are left charging straight towards the lift hill, only for a right-left chicane to throw you aside at the last moment - as you recover from that, a last hidden dip throws you into the air, followed by another "near-miss" as you head for a wall, only to turn away at the absolute last moment - all this in a matter of a few seconds, and all taken at an absolutely insane speed. One final turn and you head back to the station.

Unbelievable stuff. You know a ride is pushing its limits when every turn results in the inside wheels lifting noticeably from the track!

The ride's exit is strangely understated, just a narrow dimly lit passage back to the park's main walkway without any of the pomp and fanfare which greet you as you exit most modern rides. No photo stall, no souvenir shop, you are just popped back into civilisation as if nothing has happened. It always leaves me feeling that the mouse has chewed me up and spat me out - turning and looking at the ride again, it's still hard to believe that such a mild looking ride could be so intense. The mouse faces on the front of the cars still seem so innocent, you feel as if you've woken from a bad dream!

Enough of the poetics. There are several reactions people have when they walk away from this ride. Most people would refuse to contemplate taking a second ride immediately, but their reasons are varied. Some will be shaken up by the experience, especially those who were taken in by the ride's unassuming appearance. Others are simply thankful that they CAN walk away, and wouldn't risk their health by riding again. This was especially true before the ride's recent maintenance work, when the ride was intolerably rough, to the extent that riders were being viciously thrown up and down in their seat even at the bottom of drops. Thankfully the ride is much smoother now, and only throws you around where it is supposed to!

Personally, I wouldn't ride twice in a row either, but that isn't a criticism. Rides are meant to be an experience, a story in itself, and that's exactly what the Wild Mouse is. You wouldn't finish watching a film at the cinema and immediately join the queue for the next showing, so why should we value rides where we get off wanting to run straight back to the entrance?To borrow a phrase from another BPB ride, you "live the adventure" when you ride the Wild Mouse. It packs real drama into a couple of minutes, it has a good beginning, middle and end, plus a sense of danger missing from so many rides. Amusement parks promise us extreme experiences, but this small woodie effortlessly belittles so many of their offerings.

I'm aware that I'm praising the ride for exactly the things for which many people would criticise. To those who hate the ride, I'd say that we shouldn't forget that BPB was never designed as a park with a single centrepiece ride, as Oakwood is centred around Megafobia, for example. In other words, Megafobia was designed for people to endlessly re-ride, the Wild Mouse is not. You might only ride the Mouse once but BPB has more than enough on offer to occupy the rest of your time, so why not set aside two minutes for real old-fashioned extreme riding in between the more "comfortable" rides?

Another thing we tend to forget is that the Wild Mouse was the first major ride to be built at the park after World War II, as the park tried to re-establish itself after years of great hardship. Commissioning a ride in the grandiose style of the Big Dipper or Grand National was definitely not an option, and in the end both the design and construction work was done entirely in-house. Despite these handicaps, a great coaster was born, one which we're still enjoying almost 50 years later. It just proves that the secret of building great rides is not to just throw money at it, or to chase meaningless records and "world-first" claims. You just need a ride which offers genuine thrills, spills, and excitement.

The Wild Mouse format has been copied many times. The fact that they need not be particularly tall, or use large amounts of space, makes them attractive prospects for parks on a low budget, or afflicted by space or height restrictions. Similarly they are popular among travelling showmen who can offer a thrilling coaster while keeping ground space and transport problems to a minimum. Mack and Maurer produce high quality off-the-shelf Mice for parks and fairs, while Arrow used the Mouse format to kick-start their comeback. In-house designs also exist in locations all around the world.

Probably the most outstanding modern mouse was at Alton Towers from 1988 to 1991. This one-off Vekoma ride packed a real punch, but met with objections both from local residents and riders who did not expect such ferocity. It also suffered (like most Mice) from capacity problems, a major drawback in such a busy park as Alton Towers, and thus its fate was sealed. It was dismantled after the 1991 season and rebuilt at Idlewilde park in the states, where it remains to this day.

The good thing about BPB is that it is a living museum of the amusement industry, with rides from practically every period of the last century. More importantly, they are all presented "in context" - while you have very modern rides like The Big One and Valhalla which adhere to the modern definition of a "Theme Park Ride", old rides are kept just the designers intended.

To compare the Wild Mouse and the Big One is to compare two very different eras and two very different philosophies of coaster building. While the Wild Mouse almost echoes to the sound of the designer saying "Make the ride extreme, if it's too much for people, they don't have to ride it",The Big One's shallow hills and re-profiled (i.e., sanitised) first drop perfectly demonstrate the philosophy of "if the people can't handle it, tame it down for them". There are enough rides around for people who want nice comfy roller coasters, but the Wild Mouse at Pleasure Beach Blackpool is an extreme ride, catering for extreme ride lovers.

It might feel like two minutes of receiving non-stop body blows from a cricket bat, but a trip to Blackpool wouldn't be complete without facing up to the Mouse. It's very rough and ready, but for me it's the very best ride of its kind.

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:

  • A very unique ride and steeped in history
  • Very, very forceful, both in terms of laterals and airtime
  • Takes up very little space in a very cramped park

Bad points:

  • Wild Mouse is low capacity, while the brakes can sometimes ruin the ride
  • People may find it too rough

Labels: ,

Space Invader 2, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Sunday, February 25, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

Anyone who remembers the early days of video games will undoubtedly recall Space Invaders. There was a time when every arcade, every pub, and every chip shop had a copy of the game, and people would eagerly queue up to feed 10p coins into the machine for a few minutes of saving the Earth from intergalactic interlopers. Jumping on the bandwagon, Pleasure Beach Blackpool opened the Space Invader ride in 1984, a fairly simple enclosed coaster themed around space travel.

Although it seems hard to believe now, the opening of the Space Invader was a huge event. A memorable TV campaign was run in which a family of excited Americans would drive their Cadillac past a series of signs pointing to "THE WORLD'S MOST THRILLING RIDE", only to arrive on a deserted beach, where the final sign pointed across the Atlantic to Blackpool. Elsewhere, countless television and newspaper features promoted the ride as the last word in thrills, and as Blackpool's first step toward the 21st Century. The hype certainly worked, and like the arcade game before it, the ride generated epic queues of eager astronauts, all willing to hand over their pound notes for what was, in fact, a basic Zierer Four Man Bob coaster in the dark.

But things inevitably move on, and eventually the ride became stale. For a ride that was meant to offer a taste of the 21st Century, it is ironic that when the fabled Y2K actually dawned, the Space Invader was by far the most outdated ride in the park. Through the intervening years, the ride cars had been regularly butchered, beginning with a 4-seat Log-Flume-style arrangement, then going down to 3 seats and car-like seatbelts, and finally to 2 seats with diabolical overhead restraints. In its final days, the ride still generated massive queues, but for all the wrong reasons, namely its chronically low capacity, rather than any particular enthusiasm from the riders.

Coaster Kingdom's review of the original Space Invader was an almost entirely negative affair. The indoor queue system came in for a particular kicking, due to being horrendously claustrophobic and tedious; while the overhead restraints were slated for turning a decent little family coaster into an uncomfortable and quite brutal ordeal. Thankfully, as the stardate approached 2004, the park announced that the ride would be refurbished, and renamed "Space Invader 2". Although this was welcome news, it has to be said that re-vamped rides can sometimes turn out worse than the original, and so it is now time for us to go back and discover whether Space Invader 2 is a star attraction or a waste of deep space.

The exterior of the ride is themed as a giant cube-shaped blue meteorite that has apparently crashed to Earth in the middle of the Pleasure Beach. For the re-vamp, this has had a new lick of paint, and is now a much brighter shade of blue, neatly bringing out some of the finer details that weren't particularly noticeable before. Up above, the name signs have had a big red "2" unceremoniously cobbled onto them, while the wreckage of a spacecraft sticks out of the upper parts of the rock, the remnants of a valiant but doomed attempt to deter this great celestial body from burying itself into the Flyde coast. In an almost surreal touch, the entrance is now in the shadow of a huge new thruster-unit, which periodically plops a dense cloud of water vapour onto the crowds below. You're probably wondering possible purpose this could serve - well, if you work it out, do please share it with the rest of us.

In keeping with the park's desperate need to save space, the coaster is actually upstairs, with the ground floor being used as a tunnel for various amenities, including King Cotton, an authentic Lancashire pub (although how many real Lancashire pubs are built into the side of meteorites, I'm not sure). If you have ever seen a Four Man Bob in the open-air, you'll know that they are actually tiny, and so the fact that this one sits in such a large building is a convenient way to increase the intimidation factor of the ride.

From the front doorway, the path takes us straight onto the flight deck of our mothership. A bizarre alien creature is quarantined behind a window, while all around are panels full of flashing lights, dials, and buttons, all do doubt vital to the mission. Above, an astronaut can be seen taking a space-walk, and ahead we see a figure scanning the readings on the master control panel. This whole scene is almost exactly as it was on Space Invader 1, although it is nice to see the astronauts moving again, after many years in what I'll generously call suspended animation.

Having looked around the mothership, it is seemingly time to board our own craft, as a sign urges us forward to the launchpad. The walkway narrows into a single-file, upward sloped, corrugated iron corridor. This may well be an authentic recreation of the corridors that Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin used to reach their crafts, but that doesn't alter the fact that it is a truly horrible place in which to stand and queue. In fact, if the queue stretches this far back, it is seriously worth re-thinking whether you really want to explore the galaxy in the first place, as the whole setting is so desperately dull as to be not so much the "Gateway to the Heavens" as "The Bore of the Worlds".

For those who do decide to boldly go on, we turn a corner, and find another corridor, absolutely identical to the first, only longer. After negotiating this second mind-numbingly dull thoroughfare, we turn another corner, and there is yet another corridor. Of course, first time riders will have no idea how many more of these corridors they will have to negotiate, and so there is the added frustration of thinking you are about to reach the loading platform, only to be confronted with yet another long section of queue.

I know what you're thinking: Is this third corridor identical to the first two? If only. As with Space Invader 1, this final part of the queue consists of a long staircase, just as narrow as the previous ramps, but with the walls and ceiling covered with endless arches of lights. From the sensory deprivation of the previous corridors, this goes too far in the opposite direction, and this many bright lights in such a cramped environment is too much for the average human to endure. In the background, we over hear the radio transmissions from mission control, who are obsessed with ensuring we get our "Warp protection injections", which hopefully will cure us of the feeling of chronic claustrophobia. For those not lucky enough to have such immunity, the whole affair is close encounter of the unpreferred kind.

Although the final section of queue is undoubtedly hideous, it is still a vast improvement on the Space Invader 1 era. Not only did you spend much much longer here, due to the lower capacity of the coaster, but these endless arches of lights flashed and flickered and flashed in such a way as to make the whole ordeal utterly vomit-inducing. Those of us who were forced through the ordeal as a child still have nightmares about it, and often find ourselves waking up in the night, screaming out loud.

Finally, the test of psychological strength and determination is over, and it is time to board the ride. The station is largely unchanged from Space Invader 1's high-kitsch B-movie image of a space station, complete with soothing orchestral music, not dissimilar to that used in 2001 or Star Wars, which helps to establish the idea of the intrepid space explorers preparing for their latest mission.

As you head through the turnstile, your spacecraft glides into view from the right. After some of the horrors that Space Invader 1 used for cars, Space Invader 2's sleek pods are a genuine triumph. Like the Apollo missions, Space Invader 2 is a three-man voyage, and is taken in a craft that resemble miniature Schwarzkopf Jet Star cars. These cars are very modern and minimalistic, but still fit in beautifully with the kitsch surroundings.

Taking your seat, a simple and very comfortable T-shaped lap bar holds each crewmember snugly but securely in their place, instantly readying them for blast-off. By any standards, the new cars offer a very welcome sense of freedom and exposure, but for anyone who endured Space Invader 1's intrusive overhead restraints, they will be a particular revelation. In fact, whereas I struggled to think of a good thing to say about Space Invader 1's cars, I am similarly stumped to find anything bad about these shiny new shuttles.

As before, the lift hill is enclosed within a metallic tunnel, with a tracer light that reflects all around, in what is a surprisingly spectacular effect. This is followed by a turn through a black and white tunnel that features a monstrously psychedelic red strobe light. Emerging from the tunnel, we are released into what looks like a very busy district of outer space, full of brightly coloured spacecraft, satellites, and planets. Included in this new scenery are the bodyshells of the Space Invader 1 cars, which can be seen ferrying astronauts around the galaxy, and looking lovely in their luminous lunar livery.

Around the course, the track is shadowed by new boards showing luminous painted scenery, helping to fill riders' vision with all manner of spacecraft, planets and galaxies. This has a surprisingly positive effect, and does a great deal to help make the whole ride far more visually fulfilling than the sparse odyssey that was Space Invader 1. The only criticism is that the majority of the scenery is static, whereas a few special effects, such as dramatic lighting or sounds, might help to boost the spectacle of the ride.

The coaster itself, as you'd expect from a Four Man Bob ride, consists of a series of curved swoops linked by sharp turnarounds, with a grand finale of a long fast helix before the brakes. Most impressively, the new cars negotiate this entire course with a wonderful new-found smoothness. Indeed, Space Invader 1 gave new meaning to the phrase "Big Bang Theory", as there were several points around the course that were painfully rough, but these are now a distant memory, but these sections are now taken with such grace and elegance that it is hard to imagine how they could ever have seemed so agonisingly abrasive. In fact, what was once a truly appalling coaster has now become highly enjoyable. As the car hits the brakes, it is difficult to believe that this is the same ride as before.

As you may have gathered, Space Invader 1 was a ride I hated with a true passion. I did not expect to like Space Invader 2, but against all odds, it has emerged as a decent little ride. Almost all of the criticisms of Space Invader 1 no longer apply, with the exception of the overly-claustrophobic queue line. Even this is less significant than before however, as the improved capacity of the ride means you spend much less time cooped up, and always feel like you are at least making progress.

The ride itself is now a very pleasant little family ride. As smooth as you could ever want it to be, the ride has lost every trace of the roughness that once made it so atrocious. Dark coasters have a greater need to be smooth than outdoor ones, as you don't have the luxury of seeing what's coming and preparing accordingly, and Space Invader 2 is a perfect example of how a dark family coaster should be. It is difficult to believe that this is the ride that beat its passenger black and blue for the previous twenty years.

Outside the ride, a pre-recorded spiel, dating back to the ride's 1984 premiere, rabbits on about how good the ride is, "This ride is fantastic. Unbelievable. Out of this world. We dare you to ride it". Well, I certainly wouldn't go that far, but I suppose a more honest "This ride is not bad. Fairly reasonable. We think you'll probably enjoy it" doesn't have quite the same ring to it. In other words, Space Invader 2 is not going to be the most enduring memory of your trip to Blackpool, but will be a good memory nonetheless.

The Pleasure Beach is home to some truly superb coasters, and so to say that Space Invader 2 is "good" still means that it retains the title of the park's weakest coaster. The difference is that the difference can no longer be measured in light years. If you expect Space Invader 2 to be a giant leap for coaster-kind, you will be disappointed, but if you avoid such stratospheric expectations, you will not be disappointed.

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:

  • Excellent new cars mean a smoother ride than before
  • They also mean that visuals are far-improved

Bad points:

  • The queue line is still poor
  • It is still the park's weakest coaster and the potential for great special effects remains untapped

Labels: , , , ,

Grand National, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Sunday, February 25, 2007

It's strange to think that here at the beginning of the 21st century, with technology allowing for more and more sophisticated thrill rides, that some of our best coasters were thrilling people before the war. The Grand National is one of those rides. Designed by Charles Paige, the Grand National opened somewhere in the mid-to-late 1930s (most people agree on 1935), and replaced the park's Scenic Railway coaster. After this the history of the ride is far less eventful than that of its brother, the Big Dipper. Only the Belle Vue Bobs in Manchester challenged the ride for the title of "Britain's Best Woodie". When the Bobs was demolished in 1970, the National the title to itself, although it has now been challenged by the new pretender, Megafobia.

Being hidden from the view for virtually all of its life by the park's Fun House and now Valhalla, the Nash has always seemed to be forgotten by the public, who don't fancy handing over their cash for a ride they can't see. This is quite ironic, as part of the appeal of a racing coaster to park owners is the fact that it doubles a ride's capacity, while the Grand National seems to struggle to find enough punters to fill its trains. Hopefully, with the increasing use of wristbands, people will be more than willing to give the ride a try. While it is often ignored by the public, the ride has a very strong following among coaster fans who know all too well that the public are wrong to think that Pleasure Beach Blackpool is only about the Big One and Valhalla, and that a rummage around the park is needed to discover the true gems.

The station was designed by Jospeh Emberton, architect of many of the Pleasure Beach building during the 20s and 30s. The classic white tower has seen a few changes over the years, but was restored to its original look in 1991, only to be dwarfed by the turnaround of The Big One, which does seem to belittle the ride in every sense of the word. The first thing you notice when you arrive in the station is that it is horribly cramped. When there is a queue, the crowding on the platform is ridiculous. This lack of room means that choosing your seat is out. Usually, however, there's no crowd to fight through, and with some careful timing, you can pass through the turnstile to find a totally empty set of gates.

The trains are of the same design as the Big Dipper, although with only three benches to a car. Early in the 1998 season, a car was removed from each train, leaving only 18 seats per train. This no doubt shocked some enthusiasts, but in truth the back car gave a ride which was rough beyond the point of enjoyment, and as such I haven't mourned their removal.

Once the lap bars are checked by the staff, the trains are away. They leave roughly a second apart, which theoretically makes up for the fact that one train has a slightly longer track, due to being on the outside of more corners. The trains turn away from each other, and out of sight toward the lift hill. Usually they arrive together, leading to the traditional round of joining hands as they make their way up the lift(s).

After passing under the "THEY'RE OFF" sign, the trains turn to the left and toward the famous double first drop.

The drop is great fun, and the extra dip gives a nice bit of airtime, coupled with a moment of silence from the wheels as they part company with the track. Climbing up toward "Beecher's Brook", the trains turn right, ending up facing directly toward the top of the first drop. There are three such turns as the ride progresses, designed to enhance the thrill of racing as the trains constantly change position, the train on the inside of the turn rapidly gains ground on its opponent. Traditionally, these turns would be the scene of hand slapping between enthusiasts who have split themselves between the two trains.

After Beecher's, the trains head over Valentine's and into the left handed second turnaround. Front seat riders are given a major dose of airtime rising into this turn, while back seaters will have been given their fix on the previous drop. The next diagonal section (i.e. crossing the middle of the figure 8 ride) is the reason that for me not missing the four car trains. After a good drop, the track heads into another hill, the crown of which is directly underneath Valentine's. Here, riders in that fourth car would be subjected to such a jolt that even as a "prepared" rider, I found it difficult not to feel as if my legs had been snapped in two. The drop out of this is another double drop, although this time, the second is too small to really notice.

From here, the trains rise into the final main turnaround, which is directly underneath the first, the structure of which enhances the feeling of speed, and into the back straight. A nice little series of dips keeps the interest up, although the final dip of this section is one to watch out for! A final 90-degree right turn brings you toward the station. Nothing of any real note happens here, although this is where riders in the leading can savour their victory. Some brakes ruin what could have been a spectacular dive under one of the park's main walkways and up into the station. Famously, the trains finish the ride having swapped sides, and it is surprising how many people find this baffling. A hint to any of you who still don't know: It happened even before the lift hill!

For a time, the Grand National suffered a major problem in that the racing aspect was lost due to the fact that one train was hopelessly slower than the other. This has since been improved, and the ride is back to its full glory. For maximum enjoyment split your group between the two trains, and you can enjoy racing your friends, as the trains jockey for position the turns, and take drops side by side. It really is an immensely enjoyable experience.

My biggest criticism of the ride is that the area where the real action takes place looks pretty shambolic. PBB has never gone in for Nemesis-style "staging" for its rides, but to have a classic coaster running through what looks like a scrap yard is a little sad. Take your eye off the other train, and you are likely to see old signposts, bits of long gone rides, barbed wire fences, and all sorts of junk lying around. Surely there's somewhere better to put this rubbish!

So, is it Britain's best woodie? Well, it's close but I'd say no. At its best, I'd rank it about level with Megafobia, but my personal favourite has to be PBB's Big Dipper - I'm perfectly aware, though, that I'm in a minority! It is though, hard to rate a racing coaster against a "normal" one, as the Nash may have a slightly less exciting layout, but is perfect for creating the atmosphere of a big race, you only have to listen to people exiting the ride to know that, as comments are invariably of the "We would have beaten you if..." style.

So another classic ride for PBB, and while it doesn't quite have the relentlessness of the Big Dipper or Megafobia, it's an absolute classic and one of the best coasters in the country.

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:

  • It is good to see this ride still racing, a novel aspect that makes the Grand National a very social ride
  • A historic ride steeped in history

Bad points:

  • Takes place over a Pleasure Beach Blackpool scrapyard, and the ride is hidden away from view
  • Frequently has off days meaning poor racing

Labels: ,

[Archive] Star World, German Fairs
Sunday, February 25, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

This is an archived review and is no longer representative of the ride that it covers. For a list of up to date reviews, please click here

If I tell you that Star World is a coaster with spinning cars, I suspect I can predict your reaction. "Whoopee-doo" you'll say, "We need another spinning coaster like a hole in the head". Such a reaction is understandable, for it already seems a long time since spinning coasters were a genuine novelty, a reminder of a golden age when holidaymakers would flock to Virginia Reel coasters. For anyone unfamiliar with the Virginia Reel, these curious rides involved a long zigzag track taken in circular spinning "tubs". Blackpool Pleasure Beach was home to the last remaining Reel, and when this was reluctantly demolished, the days of the spinning coaster came to a temporary end.

Nowadays, you almost can't move for spinning coasters. Between them, Maurer and Reverchon have flooded the market with rides that range from excellent to poor, and everything in between. Perhaps, though, as we wade through this saturated market, we should remember the ride that for so long kept the flag flying for the spinning coaster concept.

Imagine the scene. It's 1992, and we're at the legendary Munich Oktoberfest. Among the array of roller coasters, spin rides, dark rides, sideshows, and other oddities, a new sight homes into view. Presented by showman Klaus Renoldi, this behemoth consists of a truly gigantic building, bearing the name "Magic Mountain". Perched above the entrance is a giant animatronic gorilla, waving apiece of roller coaster track in his humungous hairy hand. Every minute or so, a long roller coaster train skims beneath the primate's posterior, its cars spinning wildly as they go. Clearly this is more than just a big dark ride, it is a fully enclosed and fully portable dark coaster, an ambitious project even by German fair standards.

Let's skip forward to 1998. The gorilla has been sold, and enthusiasts have been fearing that Magic Mountain was retiring. Fortunately, the coaster remained, resplendent in a whole new decor, and now bearing the name Star World. The gorilla may have been no more, but this meant that the coaster itself could take centre stage, allowing spectators a much better view of what the ride actually was. Whereas re-theming existing rides often results in fairly insipid efforts (such as Thorpe Park's Rumba Rapids, or Phantasialand's Temple of the Night Hawk), Star World revels in its new identity, and has a unique look, combining the stature of a theme park ride with the OTT glitz of the fairground, with a touch of Blackpool-esque charm for good measure.

Standing before Star World is an experience in itself. The ride is simply massive, and although it is a cliche (at Coaster Kingdom, we avoid cliches like the plague), you can't stop yourself wondering how on Earth the ride could possibly travel. As if the ride itself weren't impressive enough, a new feature has been added since the re-theme; a natural successor to Magic Mountain's gorilla in the shape of a gigantic robot/alien creature, as tall as the ride itself, who stands at the entrance and serves no purpose other than to attract the attention of passing potential-punters.

Fully animated, this gentle giant in his day-glo orange space suit spends his days inviting people inside in a variety of languages. If Star World were a theme park ride, this figure's presence would be commendable; that anyone would go to the effort of packing him into a lorry and taking him on tour is astounding.

Now, I don't know about you, but when a 100ft robo-alien tells me to do something, I don't argue, and so I head for the pay box, ready to hand over the very reasonable asking price. Ticket in hand, we pause only to chortle at the various Star Wars figures that have had their appearances hastily altered to avoid the wrath of George Lucas's lawyers, and continue to the loading platform.

As is the norm at German fairs, the staff are incredibly efficient, and know exactly what it takes to keep the crowds moving on the rare occasions when a queue manages to build up. As the gates open, you envelope yourself in the deep cocoon-like cars, lower the Break Dance-style overhead lap bar, and prepare for blast-off.

Star World is unusual in that it begins with both a lift hill and a launch. The train slowly climbs around the three inner walls of the building, allowing you plenty of time to take in the laser and lighting effects that fill the void of space. Above your head, some rather tacky Ghost Train style monsters try to intimidate you, and soon the front of the train crests the rise and begins to creep out into the open air. A countdown begins, and on "zero", the train accelerates and zips out for the crowds to see. This will be your last sighting of Earth for a while, so make sure to breathe in the atmosphere (fortunately for you, nowhere on Earth has more atmosphere than a German fair)

After this bust of daylight, the train returns to the inky blackness for the remainder of the ride. The track proceeds in a seemingly endless series of long sweeps, turns and figure-of-8s that effortlessly flow from one end of the building to the other. Every turn seems designed to encourage the cars to spin a little more, while the pace of the ride never seems to slow, keeping the excitement going until the last moment.

However, Star World is more than just a coaster in pitch darkness. Throughout the ride, laser beams and spotlights do their best to heighten the sense of disorientation, while the finale of the ride sees a large fireball erupt from the ground. Well, to be precise, 50% of riders see a fireball erupt from the ground, as the other 50% will be facing the wrong way. C'est La Vie. Even the brake run is spiced up, taking place within the kind of revolving tunnel usually reserved for dark rides and walk-throughs. Bear in mind that the car itself is likely to be still spinning, and you've got a recipe for some serious disorientation.

As we pass through the air lock and make our re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, the staff leap into action, straightening the cars ready for the next troop of space cadets. There's no quarantine procedure for returning astronauts, as the staff sent us on our way at warp-speed.

Star World is truly a one-of-a-kind ride. The sheer audacity of travelling such a gigantic structure is something that has to be applauded, and suggests that the ride should be an awful lot more famous than it actually is. It is the kind of ride that any theme park would be proud of, and the only thing that seems to stop it being revered as a true classic is the fact that it has spent its entire existence in the shadow of legendary white-knuckle portable coasters such as Eurostar, Olympia Looping, and the much-missed Thriller. This is a great injustice, as it is a truly excellent "fun" coaster that really can be enjoyed by the whole family.

Criticisms? Well, it's harsh, but it's true that the amount of spinning does vary massively from one ride to the next. If your car gathers a little momentum, you can be sent spinning and tumbling through the cosmos like a deranged asteroid.

However, if you're unlucky, you'll get a fairly moderate ride, in which case you'll find that the various lighting effects aren't enough to grab the attention on their own. It feels wrong to criticise the ride in this way, especially as there are plenty of static dark coasters that do a lot less to grab riders' attention, and plenty of spinning coasters that offer far less spinning than even a "bad" ride on Star World.

There are plenty of dark coasters in the world, but very few have the panache to really explore the potential of the concept. Star World takes an unusual approach to spicing things up, and as a result is not only one of Europe's better dark coasters, but is also probably Europe's top spinning coaster. Do as the giant robot says, and sign up for a voyage into Star World. It's cosmic.

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:

  • Incredible presentation, both inside and out
  • Unusual twist on a tried and tested formula
  • Excellent family coaster

Bad points:

  • Spinning can often be erratic
  • Can be slightly rough when cars spin unexpectedly

Labels: , , , ,

Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Disneyland Paris
Sunday, February 25, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

If you think about it, it's a real sign of the times when the Disney corporation can present a celebration of rock 'n' roll. When the king of schmaltz sat in his big comfortable chair and planned his first ever theme park, rock 'n' roll was the one thing that had the establishment fearing for the world's youth, and was exactly the kind of thing that would not have been welcome at Disneyland. Amazing though it now seems, people like Bill Haley and Chuck Berry were considered wild-eyed anarchists corrupting the minds of young people. "Rock Around The Clock" was considered genuinely outrageous, and the very sight of Cliff Richard's curled lip was enough to send parents apoplectic, fearing for the safety of their daughters.

But that was more than half a century ago, and the sense of gleeful outrageousness that defined the arrival of acts like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis has long been replaced with a new breed of family-friendly rock groups who are about as wild and as anarchistic as the royal garden party, and whose output is no more likely to corrupt young minds than an episode of Sesame Street. Bands like Aerosmith, for example. Yes folks, it was good while it lasted, but true rock 'n' roll is dead and buried, and has been for long enough to allow us to don our rose tinted specs and wallow in rock nostalgia in the form of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. Put it this way, anyone joining the queue in the hope of seeing a dwarf balancing a tray of cocaine on his head will be in for a disappointment.

As visitors step out onto the vast ocean of flat tarmac that constitutes Disney Studios, they are greeted by the ride's entrance, clearly marked by a large 2D billboard advertising the ride's full name, "Rock 'n' Roller Coaster with Aerosmith". Actually, this isn't quite what it says, as the name has been spectacularly translated for the benefit of the native audience: "Rock 'n' Roller Coaster avec Aerosmith". This is Franglais at its very best, and perfect for linguistically lazy Brits (for more Franglais fun, see "Armageddon: Les Effets Speciaux", and Disneyland's fantastically titled "Indiana Jones et le Temple du Peril").

Through the entrance we go, and it soon emerges that Disney Studios isn't just about movie studios, as we follow the queue line into the foyer of a recording studio. My own musical career sadly limited itself to the stylophone and the spoons, so I've always wondered what such a foyer would be like, and the magic of Disney provided my answer. Gosh, get your camera out; it's a desk with a chair behind it. I'm sorry if that sounds disingenuous; it's certainly a first-rate desk, and from what I saw, the chair is not to be sniffed at either. As if the magic of Disneydesk weren't exhilarating enough, the other side of the room is adorned with display cases exhibiting a series of guitars, signed by some of the great exponents of this most iconic of instruments. I've no idea whether these genuinely did belong to the people claimed, but they bear suspiciously little evidence of having been smashed over speakers, or thrown out of hotel windows.

Evidentially, we have "access all areas" status, as we pass unimpeded through reception, and head around the perimeter of a "hall of fame" decorated with posters and memorabilia from five decades of rock music. It is certainly a relief to find that the ride is a genuine celebration of rock, and not the sugary homage to Aerosmith it could have been. As we move along, the names form a roll call of rock history, from Hendrix to Pink Floyd, the Kinks to Meat Loaf, and the Beatles to Metallica. Unfortunately, this does hammer home the point that rock is, with a few notable exceptions, an Anglo-American art form, and it is a shame that a few more acts from mainland Europe aren't honoured.

Into the next corridor, and we await permission to enter the studio itself. When the doors open, we shuffle into a small room for a pre-show that is technically superb, but sadly underuses the facilities available. The idea is that we're eavesdropping on an actual Aerosmith recording session. In the foreground, we see microphones and instruments; in the background, we can see into the control room, where a producer is busy fiddling with his faders and such like. The music sounds wonderful, with the walls housing more speakers than the Ministry of Sound, while the film quality is top notch, giving a very convincing illusion of snooping on a real studio.

The music fades, and into the control room come the members of Aerosmith, led by singer Steven Tyler. Tyler is living proof that you don't have to be pretty to be a rock star, resembling a terrifying amalgam of Sid Vicious, ET, and an upright vacuum cleaner. He offers a warm welcome (itself not very rock 'n' roll), and tells us that he's just been on the ride. He raves about the launch, "1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, then upside down". He then witters on a bit, in a speech seemingly engineered to crowbar in a few song lyrics (something I wouldn't dream of doing, my dear reader), before he decides he's had enough and departs, leaving us with precious little time to enjoy the power of speaker system once more.

After a short while, a door opens, and we are invited to walk this way. You may bemoan the complete lack of storyline, but as other attractions at Disney Studios demonstrate (most notably Armageddon), it can be extremely tedious and confusing to watch staff go through the palaver of establishing which languages each group requires, and then playing in anything up to half a dozen soundtracks and sets of subtitles. Unlike such attractions, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster demands nothing in terms of prior knowledge, and so the decision to completely abandon any attempt at a storyline is probably a wise one. Besides, if Tyler had to do his spiel in six languages, we'd have to see him for six times as long. Ye Gods.

From the lush surroundings of the studio, it's out into a rather post-apocalyptic looking back yard, where we get our first sight of the vaguely-limousine-themed train. In a rather splendid touch, we first encounter the ride itself from a vantage point just a few feet from the launch track, and it would take a more cynical man than I not to be impressed with the spectacle. We continue ever onward, past banks of monitors and flashing neon lights, and soon arrive on a highly efficient loading platform.

Operation of the ride is quite simply a joy to behold. We are left to our own devices to queue for whichever seat we desire, a system that works extremely well, and would be welcome addition to most coasters. Another pleasing sight is the excellent dispatch times, with limos arriving and leaving at a rate only otherwise seen at the Oscars. It's always good to see a coaster running to maximum capacity, and that's just what is on offer here, assuming you ever get chance to stop and appreciate what you're seeing.

And so your carriage awaits. Unfortunately, these are Vekoma limos, so don't expect luxury. In fact, unless you're a yoga guru or an incurable masochist, it's best to just grit your teeth and bear it as the overhead restraints and lack of legroom combine to make this about as welcoming and comfortable as an iron maiden packed with nine inch nails. The only consolation is that you are not alone in your suffering, as your train holds a total of 28 victims, and everybody hurts.

As the train rumbles into launch position, the onboard speakers subject us to Stephen Tyler's screaming. A screen flickers into life, and fortunately it is not Tyler's visage that appears, but a countdown. This all adds immeasurably to the atmosphere, and builds up tension superbly. Zero hour arrives, the music kicks in, and the train screams off like a bat out of Hell. A narrow launch tunnel and subtle lighting help to make this a truly exhilarating kick-off, and although Tyler's claims of hitting 4G prove slightly exaggerated, we're into the meat of the ride in just the blink of an eye.

Disney purists may be disappointed to find that the interior theming is little more than that of a nightclub. While this would be understandable, I don't see anything wrong with this philosophy. Let's face it, rock 'n' roll is supposed to be about exhilaration and spontaneity, and anything that felt controlled and pre-prepared would feel wrong, so why not leave the clever stuff to Space Mountain and enjoy a nice bit of OTT kitsch glamour? If anything, my main complaint about the interior theming is that is isn't quite the lavish celebration of excess that it could have been. I'd have loved to have seen the place alive with lights, lasers, strobes, noise, and great balls of fire. This is supposed to be rock 'n' roll, so it's a shame see so much restraint exercised in terms of spectacle. Don't misunderstand me, what is there is fine and does the job well, but compared to what could have been, the whole building does seem pretty vacant.

Amazingly for a Vekoma coaster, the ride manages to get the balance right in that it gives you far more of a run for your money than you might expect from a Disney ride, but doesn't leave you all shook up. The lighting effects are just enough to make you appreciate what is going on, and the scenery, though sparse, is well positioned to help maintain a sense of speed and chaos. Even the mid course brake adds to the ride, by giving an almost "Wild Mouse" type flavour, sending you charging toward a solid wall, unable to see the turn ahead.

Other than the opening butterfly inversion, and the later corkscrew, both executed with surprising grace, the layout consists largely of the type of swoops and dives that would seem pretty dull if it weren't for the scenery, lighting, and lighting. As it is, however, it works fabulously well. As the train hits the brakes, and Tyler sings his final note (I say "sings", he could well be gargling sulphuric acid, or may have caught sight of himself in a mirror), there's a feeling of true exhilaration. It's that most rare of things, a ride that combines the feeling of a good coaster with the turbo-charged atmosphere of a well run Waltzer or Break Dance. Whether that's what you want from a Disney ride, I leave that up to you, but it certainly did the job of getting the adrenalin pumping through my dilapidated old body.

I'm not sure if it has been noticeable through this review, but I'm not a huge fan of Aerosmith. Nevertheless, I have to say that if there's one thing that makes Rock 'n' Roller Coaster (avec Aerosmith, lest we forget it's full title), it is the music. This is largely because there are so few rides that offer this sort of soundtrack. Lots of rides have orchestral scores, and every fairground ride on Earth provides adrenalin-pumping techno, and while these both work extremely well, a rock soundtrack is so refreshing to hear, and works so beautifully that it's astounding to think that this type of music has been so underused. God only knows how much I'd love the ride if it were "Rock 'n' Roller Coaster avec a group I actually do like". If that were the case, I'd happily re-ride until my spine conceded defeat against the restraints, and I had to be dragged screaming from my seat (i.e. twice).

If I'm honest, I wasn't expecting a huge amount from the ride, as I had never been a fan of either Vekoma or Disney, but Rock 'n' Roller Coaster avec Aerosmith is a genuinely excellent thrill ride by any standard. It has everything you could ask for, thrills, spills, fun, exhilaration, and of course, desks. Although thrilling, it is not too extreme for the more, let's say, "refined" tastes of the average Disney visitor, and indeed the only truly scary part of the ride is having to see Stephen Tyler, who even at a distance, and supposedly separated by two thick panes of glass, scares the hell out of me.

The only downside of the whole thing is that you have to decide whether Rock 'n' Roller Coaster avec Aerosmith is really worth paying the extra to visit Disney Studios in the first place. With the exception of the Moteurs Action stunt show, there's precious little else to justify the studios' status as a separate park. Still, that's a little beyond the scope of this review, so I'll leave it at telling you that if you decide to visit the Studios, you will find an excellent ride waiting for you there. Just the one, though.

Anyway, to tie in with the sprit of the ride, I shall now proceed to give offer you Coaster Kingdom's first ever multilingual conclusion:

Rock 'n' Roller Coaster with Aerosmith is a ride with real sparkle. Thank you for reading.

Rock 'n' Roller Coaster avec Aerosmith est un ride avec real sparkle. Merci pour reading.

Rock 'n' Roller Coaster mit Aerosmith ist ein ride mit real sparkle. Danke fur reading.

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:

  • Original and entertaining theme and soundtrack
  • Genuinely thrilling ride, and despite being a Vekoma, is not rough in the slightest
  • Tremendously efficient operation with many trains and a fast moving queue

Bad points:

  • Dreadful seats avec hideous restraints
  • The internal theming isn't exactly OTT

Labels: , ,

Spinball Whizzer, Alton Towers
Sunday, February 25, 2007

We all owe a huge debt of gratitude Charles Talbot, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury. He transformed a barren area of the Staffordshire countryside into the elegant landscape that we know as Alton Towers. He created the gardens, the lakes, and everything that made it one of the most extraordinarily estates in the world. It was his life's work, his pride and joy. He died in 1827, and as a tribute to him, his nephew John Talbot, the 16th Earl, built the Choragic Monument at the entrance to the gardens, inscribed "He made the desert smile".

Interestingly, research suggests that Charles was never quite satisfied with the end product, and unverified reports suggest that newly discovered documents record his last words as follows: "I hope that some day, some kind person will finish my work by building a great big pinball-themed roller coaster right opposite my front door".

At long last, in 2004, a mere 177 years after his death, Charles' vision was completed, and the estate became home to Spinball Whizzer, a custom-designed spinning coaster from Maurer of Germany.

Let me say from the outset that Spinball Whizzer is, if we are looking purely at the two-minutes or so that you're out on the track, a reasonably respectable little ride. With that established, we can start factoring in the various unwelcome elements that turn a neat little coaster into something overwhelmingly irritating and frustrating. The enjoyment of the coaster itself is outweighed by far too many problems, either cosmetic or practical, that force me to the conclusion that the addition of Spinball Whizzer is about as complementary to Alton Towers as a multi-storey car park would be to Stonehenge.

If we don a pair of metaphorical blinkers, Spinball Whizzer looks great. It towers above the local greenery, and its silver cars look great as they manically dart and weave among the structure. Maurer’s signature "Immelman" element, in which the track rises until vertical, then turns 180 degrees and drops back to Earth, is nicely framed by a smaller horseshoe turn that threads the main arch. Like a wickedly warped Wild Mouse, the track darts and weaves around the area with tremendous grace. By "normal" standards, it's undoubtedly a good-looking little ride.

Now, let's take those blinkers off:

Once upon a time, you could walk down Towers Street and see the genuine majesty of Alton Towers. You could walk on the lawn, admiring the wonderful sight of the Talbots' ancestral home, and marvelling at the timeless beauty of it all. Those days are gone. Nowadays, the whole area is clogged up with the kind of tacky paraphernalia that would look fine in any other park, but which destroys the dignity that was once Alton Towers' hallmark.

To your right, as if to emphasise the permanence of this disregard for tradition, is the bright red tangle of track that is Spinball Whizzer, complete with accompanying soundtrack of roars and hisses from the ride's machinery, and the yells of its riders. The contrast between the beauty of the towers, and the ultra-modern style of Spinball Whizzer simply looks wrong, sounds wrong, and feels wrong. In all the years that Alton Towers has operated as a theme park, there has always been a feeling that great care has been taken not to infringe on the park's great history. Spinball Whizzer is an unmistakable omen that this is to be consigned to the history books. Oh well, they were nice while they lasted.

One thing that was immediately obvious when Alton announced their intention to build a Maurer spinning coaster was that these rides, with their "Wild Mouse" type capacity, would generate outrageous queues. Indeed, the precedent had been set by the Vekoma-built "Alton Mouse", which generated gargantuan queues until its removal in 1991. Nevertheless, we thought, Alton Towers must have considered this, so let's take a look to see what ingenious scheme they've concocted to relieve the crowds:

Well, there' not a lot to report, to be honest, and certainly nothing I can say that would be remotely positive. The queue for Spinball Whizzer is definitely not its finest point. In the grand Tussaud's style, it weaves among the structure of the ride, but is an open invite to queue jumpers, as one hop over the right fence here and there can skip giant chunks of the queue, while offering little risk of being spotted by the staff. What about Fastrack (AKA Virtual Queue)? Amazingly, this is conspicuous only by its absence, meaning that you either wait your turn, or you don't ride at all. Actually, that's not quite true, there is one method which will allow you to bypass the queue completely, and the park isn’t exactly secretive about what it is.

The entrance to the ride is marked by a large pinball scoreboard, with numbers whirling around feverishly. To the left is a sign saying "ENTRANCE". To the right, "PASS HOLDER ENTRANCE". That's right, should you stay in the Alton Towers Hotels, you will be given a pass that entitles you to walk straight onto the ride. Better still, the pass holder path directly shadows the last part of the main queue (approx 45 to 60 minutes worth of queue), enabling you to flaunt your superiority right in the faces of the poor souls in the normal queue.

Arriving en masse? Don't worry, you can all hop straight onto the ride, and everyone else can abandon any hope of the queue moving in the immediate future. Now, I don't particularly begrudge the hotel guests being given priority passes per se, but I do object to the way Alton Towers has chosen not to let them on discreetly, but rather to parade their preferred customers under the noses of those who have had the "audacity" to confine their visit to a single day. In short, it seems to be a fairly shameless way of reminding you that the more you pour into the Alton Towers coffers, the better they'll treat you.

However, what the priority pass holders don't get is the opportunity to play a series of pinball related games. These are scattered through the queue, with approximately one for every half hour of waiting. All consist of a single button that triggers a blast of air, propelling a silver ball to the top of the machine, with points awarded depending on where it lands. While a nice addition, these games provide little more than five seconds of amusement in what is a very slow and frustrating queue.

The only other in-queue entertainment is the constant music. Generally, this consists of a similar playlist to the WWTP radio station in Thorpe Park's Amity Cove, featuring classic Americana from the likes of Elvis, the Beach Boys and The Monkees. With no speech in between, and with an odd tendency to throw in the occasional piece of modern dance music, it lacks the atmosphere of Thorpe's version, but does at least help to make the wait a little more tolerable. Again, however, there is a niggling feeling that this Americanised atmosphere is inappropriate in a park that used to be the very definition of British grandeur, but if you can eradicate such thoughts, it helps to make your wait a more tolerable one.

Now, if you're getting frustrated about how long I've spent going on about the queue without starting on the ride itself, then consider that an accurate simulation of what it feels like to wait for Spinball Whizzer. You will be glad to know, however, that the end is nigh as we inch towards the silver hut that is the station.

Mercifully, there are no hidden cattle grids in the queue, and the path leads straight to the loading platform, where all the usual station announcements are made by a highly enthusiastic character, who preceeds and proceeds every announcement with "Woohoo", "Wahey", and other such exclamations. The station itself is a rather plain affair, unthemed but for a series of pinball bumpers in the ceiling, and the occasional pinball-related word written on the wall.

As with all Maurer spinning coasters, each car seats four riders in a 2x2 back-to-back formation. Although awkward to climb in and out, the cars are very comfortable once seated, and the large lap bar is nice and snug, offering a tremendous sense of security. The silver cars are undecorated but for the park's name and car number, which is a shame, but appropriate to the idea of the theme. Soon, you leave the station, past the "BALL IN PLAY!" sign that adorns the service hut, and up the lift hill.

The lift hill is swift, and soon the first drop arrives. Unlike Maurer's travelling version of the ride, the car is free to spin right from the off, and our budding Tommies are plunged into a spiral drop, reaching around half way to the ground, before hopping back into a set of block brakes. From the brakes, the car embarks on a long straight drop, followed by the Immelman, with these two elements presenting a quite imposing sight, being the most prominent section of the ride for passers-by.

The Immelman is OK, but lacks the sense of mania that other Maurer spinners seem to offer. Facing downwards, it offers good visuals, but is something of an anti-climax for anyone expecting anything particularly thrilling. Far more enjoyable is the proceeding swoop back in and out of the structure, and back through the Immelman arch, which has a nice flowing quality to it. All that's left now is a nice drop into a good ground hugging helix, and a final back-and-forth zigzag to the brake run. Don't let your guard down, though, as the device that straightens the cars relies on very basic technology and is not subtle, being more than capable of giving a quite aggressive thwack to unsuspecting riders.

On the plus side, the ride feels nice and long, and is wonderfully smooth, which is a relief, given that 50% of the time you can't see what's coming and prepare accordingly. Some of the changes of direction are wonderfully subtle, and it does seem that Maurer have really made the spinning coaster concept their own. Unusually, the highlights are the dives to and from the various block brakes, which offer a wonderfully disorientating transition from chaos to calm, and back, as well as providing a slight pop of airtime if you're lucky.

As for the downers, well, for a spinning coaster, there seems to be one quite startling omission. Spinning. Only the hops onto the various block-brakes seem to persuade the cars to move at all, whereas much of the "proper" sections of track see the cars stick rigidly in whatever position they have chosen. Compared to the wild spinning offered by some of Reverchon's Crazy Mouse coasters, you get a distinct feeling that Maurer's cars would welcome a liberal dose of WD-40.

While you can argue that a pinball theme does not suit the park, you can't deny that it opens up a huge array of potential tricks and effects. The Maurer-designed Winja's coasters at Phantasia Land include such features as see-saw track, which would have suited the pinball theme beautifully. Spinball Whizzer could have been a real showcase for what Maurer can do with the concept, and yet this potential remains entirely untapped, leaving a relatively coaster that is little more than a simple re-shuffle of the elements found on the travelling version.

As for the in-ride theming, this consists of little more than the occasional bumper-tower here and there, which is a real waste of a gilt-edged opportunity to do something truly spectacular. Similarly, the ride fails to exploit the possibility of in-ride effects such as endless chaotic head-choppers and sound effects as the car darts around the structure, meaning that riders have very little to watch out for during the ride.

Considering that the idea is that you are the ball in a pinball table, you'd be forgiven for expecting a bit more razzamatazz. A real pinball table is a fast-paced extravaganza of action, lights, sounds, and anything else the designers can chuck into the mix. By contrast, Spinball Whizzer's decor could not be more bland and insipid if it tried.

Now, observant readers may be wondering whether this is the same Coaster Kingdom that has heaped praise upon Dragon's Fury, Spinball Whizzer's sister ride at Chessington World of Adventures. Well, while Dragon's Fury is certainly the better and more interesting ride, it also suits Chessington in a way that Spinball Whizzer does not suit Alton Towers. Both rides fall somewhere between the categories of "family ride" and "thrill ride", and as a result of this, Dragon's Fury works perfectly as a relatively major ride in a park intended for young families.

Spinball Whizzer, meanwhile, is forced to cater to both audiences, the young families and the thrill seekers, and simply does not have the capacity to do so. As a result, family groups are charged with the task of keeping the youngsters amused as they plod interminably through a soul-destroying queue, while older groups are going to be frustrated to find that they've queued longer for Spinball Whizzer than they would for Nemesis or Oblivion (or, quite possibly, the two combined).

Building Spinball Whizzer at Alton Towers was like housing a Rolf Harris sketch in the Louvre. Individually, it might be a fairly entertaining piece, but it should not be there, and makes its surroundings less dignified than before. It simply had too much to do in terms of trying to entertain too great a proportion of the park's visitors, without infringing on the park's unique landscape. As a result, it fails on both counts, being garish enough to cheapen the area, while not garish enough to create the illusion of a giant pinball machine. It makes you wonder why the pinball theme was chosen, given that it was never really going to work in such a location.

In short, Maurer has designed a respectable little family coaster that would work extremely well in many parks, but which totally ignores the fact that Alton Towers regularly attracts crowds beyond what the ride can handle. As a result, actually getting to ride it involves far more hassle than it's really worth.

Given that Spinball Whizzer has much lower capacity than any of the parks main three coasters (Nemesis, Oblivion, Air), and appeals to a much higher proportion of visitors, I can't really recommend Spinball Whizzer to you unless you happen to visit on a very quiet day indeed. "Fair enough" you might say, but there's one unavoidable proviso - At Alton Towers, "Very quiet days" are all but non-existent.

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:

  • A fun, relatively smooth, and fairly long ride
  • Comfortable and a ride that all the family can enjoy

Bad points:

  • Fails to blend in with the surrounding area and doesn't exploit the theming opportunities
  • Capacity is well below what is required, and due to the popularity of the ride, you should expect sizable queues
Relevant reading: Family coasters
Winja's Fear and Force, Phantasia...
Dragon's Fury, Chessington World...
Whirlwind, Camelot
Booster Bike, Toverland

Labels: , , ,

Rita - Queen of Speed, Alton Towers
Sunday, February 25, 2007

There was a time when Alton Towers was known for coming up with brilliantly original names for rides. Why use a hackneyed old cliche like "Cyclone" or "Revolution" when you can use "Nemesis" and "Oblivion"? Times have changed since then, and it now seems that the park's creative department has confused the concepts of "brilliantly original" and "downright daft". If it was a touch surreal to use the non-descript syllable "Air", the park has excelled itself with near nonsensical "Rita: Queen of Speed". It seems that the park is determined to wrestle the title of "worst ride name" away from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which gave us the dual atrocities of "PlayStation: The Ride" and "Bling".

Of course, there is a rationale behind naming your new Intamin rocket coaster after a Coronation Street shopkeeper but, as with the Nemesis legend, there seems little urgency to explain anything to Joe Public. The official explanation is that in the American sport of Hot-Rod racing, it is apparently traditional for racers to give their cars female names. At this point, I wish to remind you that I never said there was a GOOD reason to call the ride Rita, just that there was a reason. It remains likely that there is some sort of private joke behind the name, as it seems implausible that the idea got through the entire Tussauds system without someone pointing out that it is possibly the most charmless name of all time.

Even at its most basic level, it seems a great shame for a park that has often excelled in creating unusual themes should go for the most screamingly obvious idea for a launch coaster, namely motorsport. Even less appealing is that this most quintessentially British of theme parks should be seeking to theme its rides around American imagery, particularly given the horrendous clashes it creates with the cartoon caveman theme of the existing Ug Land rides. Attempts have been made to suggest that this is some sort of bizarre prehistoric form of motorsport, but this is monumentally half-hearted.

But what of the ride itself? Intamin's hydraulically powered rocket coasters have been a huge hit, offering a launch that is far more powerful than anything before seen. Generally, the astonishing speeds attainable with this technology have been seen as an excuse to send trains to ludicrous heights, breaking the 400ft barrier. Rita, however, marks a departure from this approach, with the launch instead leading to a circuit more like a low-rise version of Holiday Park's Expedition Ge-Force or Walibi World's Goliath, featuring a fast flowing layout that worms its way into every corner of what the park still officially labels Ug Land, but which now seems to carry the secondary title "Thunder Rock Rally".

The Corkscrew, a ride that once attracted hordes of thrill-seekers from every corner of the kingdom, now sits literally in the shadow of its younger sister, with bright red Intamin track cutting across both front corners of the Vekoma relic. It really is a stark reminder of how far steel coaster design has advanced in a quarter of a century when you see the nasty chunky lines of Vekoma's creation juxtaposed with the fluidity of Intamin's work. There's no shortage of vantage points from which to view the newer ride, as the whole layout adheres strictly the Tussauds philosophy of allowing punters to get up close and personal with its coasters. Although not integrated into the landscape to quite the same extent as Nemesis or Colossus, you can nevertheless walk around beneath almost the entire layout of the ride, giving ample opportunity to appreciate it's astonishing speed.

Another sharp contrast is in the sounds the two rides make. While the Corkscrew's trains rumble around sounding like a flatulent walrus, the only sound you'll hear from Rita is of the "Go! Go! Go!" launch jingle, and the screams of the riders. The silence is deafening, and is somehow difficult to accept. In contrast to Nemesis, where the belligerent roar of the train is integral to the sense of fury that the ride is designed to encapsulate, Rita seems unsettlingly eerie and soulless by comparison.

You may not hear much of the ride, but what you will hear is "TRRR", or Thunder Rock Rally Radio. Like the excellent WWTP Radio in Thorpe Park's Amity Cove, this is a faux radio station that plays a selection of classic rock tracks (many with loose connections to the automotive theme), while a mock-DJ takes calls and generally tries to keep the crowds entertained. While the music hits the spot, the spoken sections are abysmal, particularly those where presenter Roxy Stone conducts a series of tortuously laboured "comedy" interviews that commit the twin sins of being woefully unfunny, and lasting what seems like forever and a day. I could write a 10,000 word dissertation on what makes this so abysmal, but I shall spare you the unabashed torrent of bile that would inevitable be forthcoming if I were to discuss it any further.

Obviously, the first thing you will encounter as you head through the giant tyre that forms the ride's entrance is the queue line. This must be the most expansive cattle grid that Tussauds has ever built, and makes for a convoluted and daunting prospect even at the best of times, especially as it is near impossible for the uninitiated to work out how far they have to go before they make it to the station. The queue winds its way along much of what used to be the Corkscrew queue, making it difficult for first timers to establish exactly who is queuing for which ride.

As has become customary for Tussauds, as you near the station, the queue goes from a single file affair to a multi-lane highway of normal queue, single rider queue, front seat queue, pass holder queue, and God only knows what else. Be warned - the front seat queue is far longer than you are led to expect, and makes for very slow progress indeed. Unlike the architectural wonders that the park's B&M rides use for stations, Rita's open-air platform is modest in the extreme. In fact, "scaffolding" is the word that best sums it up. On the whole, the station actually looks distinctly temporary, and you get the impression that the ride staff are making the best of a pretty bad job.

Rita's trains are themed as 1950s hot-rod cars, just to add a bit more confusion to Ug Land's muddle of time-zones. Boarding is a very straightforward affair, which will no doubt be a relief to anyone who has faced the Herculean task of climbing through the back row of a Colossus car. The restraints are an odd mix of lap bar and overhead, with a chunky "cushion" lowering into place, while two stiff rubber straps arch over your shoulders. The lack of leg-room requires riders to adopt a curious bolt-upright squat, but on the whole, everything is perfectly comfy. When all is well, the train shuffles forward slightly, and the red lights start to countdown to the launch.





In just the blink of an eye you are propelled from 0 to 100. Now I know what you're asking, "100 what?", well that's one thing the park isn't admitting. It could be metres per second, chains per minute, or light years per microsecond. In fact, it is km/h, but the point is this: it's damn fast.

The acceleration is truly incredible, pinning riders to their seats, and causing a sensation in pit of the stomach unlike anything any other type of ride out there. Looking forward at turn 1, there is an instinctive panic that we seem to be going far too quickly to safely make the turn. Towards the end of the main straight, the sense of acceleration dies unexpectedly, and a split second later the train piles into the first turn. The banking is pretty severe at this point and is one of several spots on the ride where it is worth bracing yourself to prevent the restraints becoming a pain in the neck, all too literally.

After this long high-speed turn, the track rises into a sublime hill, twisting to the right as it climbs, then propelling riders out of their seats before diving to the left. A truly stunning start, and one that can only be given the highest of praise. A left swoop skims the roof of the Corkscrew station, and sends the train hurtling into a smaller and equally effective airtime hill. After this fabulous opening gambit, things unfortunately start to tail off just a little. A swoop to the right, shadowing almost precisely the first turn, and we're winding back across Ug Land toward the station, and a powerful airtime-filled hop on to the brakes. It's all very nice while it lasts, but clocking in at a mere 30 seconds, it's hard to convince yourself that it was worth standing in a typically long Alton Towers queue for. Put it this way: You know a ride is too short when you can look down from the brake run and see that the next set of riders have yet to make it through the airgates.

The most commendable thing about Rita is that it really does give the sort of turbo-charged ride that a launched coaster should offer. At no point does it come threaten to run out of steam and revert back to the feeling of a "normal" coaster. If anything, however, it is just too darned fast for its own good, particularly given how short the circuit is. First time out, it is absolutely impossible to take in what is happening, resulting in an odd sense of having queued for an hour or more to ride a coaster, only to leave the train having barely noticed anything that has happened. It's fantastic while it lasts, but it's not exactly fulfilling in the way that Nemesis is. Ironic, given that television advertisements for the ride's opening centred on the idea that it will give you happy memories to cherish in the future, that I struggled to remember any of it after my first ride.

It's not until your second or third ride that you come to notice anything that happens between the launch and the brakes. After these first few rides, the novelty of the launch dies off, and you can begin to concentrate on the rest of the ride, at which point a couple of flaws become obvious. Despite being such a short ride, the three long high-speed, low-altitude turns start to become a little dull once the novelty of the speed wears thin. The turns, while being blisteringly fast, are long and open, and therefore offer next-to-nothing of the strong G-forces you would expect from such a super-speedy ride. What you may have expected Rita to be a physically punishing ride, it turns out to be nothing of the kind, which is a real shame, particularly after the G-feast of the launch. A couple of long, tight helices would be just the ticket to provide these sort of gruelling physical exertions, but instead all we have is three long forceless turns, two of which are nigh-on identical.

The other criticism of Rita is the whole look of the thing. It's no secret that Rita was an immense rush job for the park. Whereas Alton Towers' trio of B&M coasters are the result of years of planning, plans for Rita took shape in mere months. This is not necessarily a bad thing (Phantasia Land's River Quest was even more of a rush job, but is none the worse for it), but in this case, the moment you enter Ug Land, it is quite screamingly obvious that Rita has not had the same level of love and attention lavished on it as other rides. Bluntly, Rita looks like it has been well and truly shoehorned into Ug Land. The conflict of two totally different themes is ludicrous, and makes even the Nemesis / Air clash look subtle.

Rita's station is truly horrible. Again, it is very obviously wedged into position, sitting in a narrow strip of land between the Corkscrew and Skyride, it is below par both aesthetically and functionally, and simply feels wrong, especially in a park that usually takes theming and landscaping seriously. It reflects the spirit of the entire ride, in that it is obvious that it has been stuck into whatever gap it could fit. Likewise, the queue system is a total mess, particularly in the way it tangles itself with that of the Corkscrew. Elegant Rita ain't, but beggars can't be choosers, and I'd rather have a shoehorned ride than no ride at all, which seems to be the choice the park faced.

Finally, capacity seems to be a major problem. Despite the best efforts of the ride staff, with only 20 seats per train, it struggles to cope with the demands placed on it in a busy park like Alton Towers. As with Spinball Whizzer, long queues seem to be the norm even on quiet days, and even with such efficiency measures as separate loading and unloading platforms, the ride seems doomed to attract truly gargantuan queues on busy days. Would you queue for three or more hours for a 30 second ride? If so, good luck to you, but this will undoubtedly be too much for the majority to tolerate.

Once upon a time, when Nemesis opened, people criticised it for being too short. Now, with Oblivion and Rita, Nemesis looks like a veritable marathon by comparison. Rita is not a bad ride, indeed parts of it are astoundingly good, but it is yet another gimmick-coaster that seems unlikely to keep hold of riders' affections the way that Nemesis has. Whereas Nemesis continues to get better each time you ride it, the opposite is true of Rita, and it doesn't take a huge number of rides before the novelty starts to wear away, and the prospect of joining the queue becomes less and less appealing. Of course, this is not an issue for most riders, who will only ride it once or twice a year, but if you plan to make a habit of it, then make sure you appreciate those first few rides while the novelty is still there.

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:

  • A truly amazing launch
  • Never loses momentum through the ride
  • Three good doses of airtime

Bad points:

  • A low capacity ride with a boring queue line
  • Theming is sparse and clashes with the rest of the area
  • Appalling dreadful abysmal atrocious horrendous name
Relevant reading: Average launched coasters
Xpress, Walibi World
Booster Bike, Toverland
Stealth, Thorpe Park

Labels: , ,

Xpress, Walibi World
Sunday, February 25, 2007

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.

Bing Bong.

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.

Good points:

  • 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

Bad points:

  • 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
Relevant reading: Names containing 'x'
2Xtreme, British Fairs
Hex, Alton Towers
Equinox, British Fairs

Labels: , ,

Winja's Fear and Force, Phantasialand
Sunday, February 25, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

We humans are a curious lot. Despite around a quarter of the planet remaining uncharted, we have broadened our horizons of discovery to the furthest fringes of our solar system and beyond. Our inquisitiveness has yielded the discovery of extinct breeds of animal, as well as the unearthing of long-lost civilizations.

Yet, it wasn't until 2002 that the ancient underground empire of Wuze Town was discovered at Phantasialand in Bruhl, Germany. Wuze Town is a mythical middle-earth civilization dating back to 850AD where women rule on the banks of Moon Lake.

Despite it being notable only by its absence over the last ten centuries, the entrance to Wuze Town is hardly recluse; a huge facade of tan-coloured crazy paving is brought to life with a whimsical and almost Gaudi-like entrance area set behind an exotic fantasy garden.

The entrance is decorated with a pair of whimsical turrets, decorated like giant cobbled feet with a water feature bubbling over a wooden wheel-like structure behind.

Wuze Town is essentially a large bazaar, although ingeniously incorporates a complex labyrinth of pathways and balconies that climb up into the upper pinnacles of the building. This of course offers a heightened sense of exploration and discovery, whilst also affording unique views of Winja's Fear and Force orbiting their way around hairpin turns before dropping into large sweeping spirals around the highly themed observation ride, Tittle Tattle Tree which itself climbs towards the enormous glass atrium above.

In the deepest recesses of the building, beyond a bustling marketplace, you'll find Winjas. The entrance takes you into a dark vault, towards a sculpture of a middle-earth type creature, with a hawk-like beak, light flaring from golden eyes with a claw cradling a pink egg.

A staircase wraps around this statue and takes you up into the main queue hall. The walls are decorated with a battalion of dark, mysterious characters, hawk-eyed in the darkness looking down on you.

The queue can look bewildering, but it splits early to establish which of the courses you're going to engage battle with; Fear or Force. Frankly, at the queue-line stage, the distinction between the two is vague at best. Unlike other duelling rides like Duelling Dragons where the distinction is made crystal clear not only by the split in the queue, but also by things like the colour of the track, I don't think it would take a complete moron to miss not only the fact that there are two rides intertwining, but also the fact there are two coasters signposted as Fear and Force, especially on a quiet day when the split doesn't occur opposite a large mural decorated with Fear and Force respectively pointing in opposite directions.

That said, such pensiveness might actually work to your benefit. One of the benefits of having two coasters is that it effectively doubles the capacity of the attraction and how many people it accommodates on an hour-by-hour basis. If both rides are marketed unequivocally as being separate - and indeed unique, then much of the benefit of two rides is made redundant as people would ride both Fear and Force.

Perhaps in-keeping with some of the hostile environments the great explorers such as Indiana Jones and Frodo Baggins, the queue is stuffy and uncomfortable. The dark and subdued lighting adds to the atmosphere, but the mass of people in a small room means on a hot day it will feel more like a sauna over an ancient civilisation.

The two queues run parallel as they descend down a staircase down into the deepest depths of Wuze Town and onto the station platform. Despite the two sides always being referred to in unison and in order as 'Fear & Force' (much like Bangers & Mash or Romeo & Juliet), confusingly, Force queuers are on the left hand side, whilst on the control room opposite, the ride's name, "Winja's Fear & Force" further blurs the line of distinction between the two sides.

The platform is tiny, accommodating the unload position of the cars where they advance to the load position where riders are held behind airgates. The set up of the station is cramped, but against all odds seems to work. Even at this late stage in the queue where the practicalities of a station should take precedence over a consistent theme, absolutely nothing is missed. Operators are in costume, the station is decorated with elaborate trimmings such as heavy curtains, and the cars are probably the most ornate I've ever seen.

Almost appearing to have been carved out of stone, the feminine face of Fear/Force decorates the side of the cars, with ornate finishings such as delicate obelisks and detail on the very top of the car.


Riders sit in pairs, back to back. The lapbar is very snug, and effectively cocoons you into the deep seat. With a quick check, the car advances towards two massive doors that swing out of the way before you stop in front of two more doors.

A huge lantern flickers above with a statue depicting Fear/Force cradling a flame in her cupped hands before two more doors open, you advance forward and stop.

After the hustle and bustle of Wuze Town, as the door closes behind you and the car is plunged into darkness, you suddenly feel very insular. A brief moment of anticipation recedes as the car suddenly and quickly is lifted from the ground vertically though the darkness to a height of 60 feet. As you approach the top, the track smoothly tilts downwards almost as if to taunt forwards facing riders with a view of the steep drop and adding to the sense of overwhelming curiosity for backwards facing riders.

In just a few moments, with a satisfying clunk, the car suddenly launches itself down a steep drop with fleeting glimpses of Force to the left of the direction of travel. Following the sweeping first drop, the car climbs up towards the ceiling arching through an exquisite camelback hill before climbing up and through the first block brake.

From this point on, your car is free to spin, and does so first though a series of elevated wild mouse turns. In a feature absent from both Dragon's Fury and Spinball Whizzer, these turns really serve little more than a scenic break from the onslaught of the rest of the ride, being neither particularly forceful, nor encouraging towards getting the cars spinning.

Having passed through this slalom, the car pitches to the side and swoops around the main atrium of Wuze Town through a sweeping helix. Force swoops overhead as you suddenly become the object of onlooker's exclamation as you pass close enough to eavesdrop on their conversations.

After this prolonged flyby, and a brief kiss from some mid-course brakes, you drop into the darkest halls of Wuze Town, climbing suddenly and almost vertically up through a tight immelman turn, swooping out into the light again almost as a token formality before diving down a steep drop back into the darkness, abruptly climbing up a sharp rise on which you suddenly stop, perched precariously on the end of some dead end track.

As if this predicament wasn't dramatic enough, a stirring orchestral melody explodes as the entire stretch of track tilts downwards as if guided by some malevolent force and the car drops into a tight right hand turn, weaving around to the left and stopping on the final brakes.

Even the final slalom through pitch darkness from the brakes to the station throws some pepper on the goulash as the track drops briefly from under you before bouncing back up and returning you into the station - a subtle effect, and somewhat wasted, but certainly makes a dull gait something more interesting.

Winja's Fear


The beautiful thing about Fear and Force being twins is that if you like one, you'll like the other, yet each offer their own individual character. Like Fear, Force gets off to a familiar start; you queue in the same hall, descend down the same staircase onto the same platform.

This time you load to the left, and like Fear, your four-seater car is tyre driven straight out of the station, into a vault and then beyond into a dark, enclosed elevator.

No time to waste as your car is sensationally lifted 60ft in a matter of seconds, smoothly tipping you into a sweeping first drop, curling elegantly towards the upper echelons of the glass atrium, rolling around to the right and sweeping along the length of the hall through a series of subtle undulations before hitting the first straight into a run of hairpin turns.

Akin to Fear, your car is now free to spin, and passes through the fairly rudimentary elevated hairpin turns, treating riders to a particularly sharp turn out of a set of brakes at the end of this element before spiralling into the same 65ft diameter carousel helix as Fear, briefly passing over Fear and then pulling into a straight back towards the entrance of Wuze Town.

In the shadows of the earlier hairpin bends, your car buries itself into the far corner of the building, scurrying into a tight corridor of pillars and walls, down a subtle drop and then plummeting into a sublime drop past a cascading waterfall down to the water below and past one of the best vantage points in the whole of Wuze Town before going off piste and into the darker recesses of Wuze Town.

As soon as the light fades, your car stops suddenly, and as your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, you realise you're perched on a straight of track that goes absolutely nowhere. Before you can even comprehend an escape route, the entire stretch of track - train and all - tips sharply to the side, joining up with another curve of track before you are launched into a sweeping S-turn, finishing just how Fear finished, with a final section of trick track leading you into the station.

Winja's Force


Judged individually on their own merits, both Fear and Force are the epitome of sublime. Like Dragon's Fury at Chessington, Winja's can confidently be filed under 'Fun', and raises a smile from even the most sombre of rider, whether young or old, a white knuckle fan or family fan.

Fear is, in my opinion, without a doubt the better of the two. It has a far more spectacular opening with a massive straight drop into an oversized camelback hill, and has a better and more composed middle section following the main helix making use of the extra 200-or-so feet of track length at it's disposal.

Force, however, is hardly a turkey. The comparably lacklustre start is offset by a wonderful stint along the back wall of Wuze Town with a wonderful drop past a large waterfall and into the darker regions of Wuze Town.

Neither ride escapes criticism, however petty. The Wild Mouse hairpin bends on both are fairly tame, but to their credit adds variety to an already fruity medley of elements.

The main criticism seems to be when the rides leave the main hall and enter a darkened hall in the back of Wuze Town. Whilst the hall is dark, it isn't dark enough to disguise the fact it is unthemed and by the same token, ugly. It is similar to the warehouse section on Colorado Adventure, where you unquestionably profit from the darkness, but cannot escape the fact you're just in a large, dark room.

Again, almost as if to weaken my own argument, this is a moot point on an otherwise elaborately themed ride. Both of the tracks interact well with the pathways around Wuze Town, and indeed the Vekoma Mini-Paratower, Tittle Tattle Tree.

Ignoring the 'dark room', nothing has been missed with regards to the theme. Supports are disguised as wooden pillars and are often built into the building itself supporting the balconies and roof above. Also, the pillars supporting the wild-mouse-style turns at the beginning of the ride rise out from strange little tent-come-buildings. Silly little details like this abound, and - it's a cliche - but often up to Disney standard.

Even ignoring the trick track sections, each of these rides holds it's own against other family coasters, and like most Maurer spinning coasters has a broad appeal. But, add to this unusual elements such as the see-saw, the tilting track and the drop track towards the end of the ride, as well as other unique elements such as the vertical lift, and you have a ride that uses not only attention-seeking tricks to embed themselves into your memory, but also a varied, action-packed layout to ensure that you'll enjoy it ride after ride.

I'll be honest here and say that my main concern with Winja's Fear and Force was that the trick track elements would be intrusive and break up and flow that the coasters had, but each punctuates the transition into a new 'chapter' of the ride well - from the main hall, into the coaster's final curtain and both the tilting track and see-saw are quick enough to mean that every moment is one to be savoured, and not intruded upon by logistical clutter such as the stopping of the car or the aligning of the track.

At 40ft and banked at 80-degrees, Fear's Immelman turn is hardly statistically note-worthy, but is fast, sudden and a complete surprise as it is hidden away to all but the most inquisitive - consequently, it is one of the best executed versions of this element to date.

Both coasters also profit immensely by their original setting - both enclosed, but certainly not in the traditional sense. In fact, there's very little traditional about either of these coasters, but each has enough substance to guarantee that you'll enjoy every ride and that it doesn't solely rely on wafer-thin tricks to impress.

Phantasialand and Maurer have both respectively struck gold. Winjas shows off Maurer's capabilities in the very best light, whilst Phantasialand have looked outside the box when it comes to hosting a wonderful family roller coaster with universal appeal. Phantasialand have unearthed a wonderful 'town', and a near faultless coaster.

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:

  • Two fantastic coasters, and twin tracks means double the capacity
  • Original tricks on each, including vertical lift, seesaw, tilting track and falling track
  • Both have varied layouts, great cars, superb theming and offer a generally smooth ride
  • Great interaction with pathways around the building, and a nice enclosed setting indoors
  • Much of the theming is excellent, and a very original theme

Bad points

  • The enclosed sections are sparse and unthemed
  • The hairpin bends on both are tame, and Force has an uninspiring start
  • The benefits of having twin tracks may be wasted as people will inevitably ride both

Labels: , , ,

Stealth, Thorpe Park
Saturday, February 24, 2007

I'm going to stop short of calling Stealth predictable, but there has always been an air of inevitability about it from day one.

As an iconic coaster, I hoped that the park would rise to the challenge of giving the UK an internationally noteworthy coaster - an icon - but, at the back of my mind I was haunted by the spectre of inevitability that the park would trim back this flourishing rose bush to just a thorny twig.

Stealth is a good ride. Really, it is.

But, it lacks the imagination, spirit and brazenness of real iconic rides, enduring symbols that should become the envy of the world and embed themselves indelibly so when you think Thorpe Park, you think Stealth, just like when you think Blackpool, you think the Big One.

Problem is, it is difficult to make a convincing argument that Tussauds should beef up the public with all the extra trimmings when seemingly Stealth is already enough to keep hunger at bay.

At the end of the day, Stealth is no taller and no faster than the prototype ride that was built at Knott's Berry Farm in 2002. Forgive my nonchalance, but while it is a good ride, it has nothing at all to make it stand out from the myriad of so-called rocket coasters around the world.

Of course, most people wouldn't have ridden Xcelerator, but come on, can't we set standards for an icon coaster higher than simplified clones that were built years ago? I believe iconic coasters by their very nature stand out and offer something you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world.

Aesthetically, Stealth's simplicity is beautiful. A single, elegant archway climbs away from a fan of supports, while the return bunnyhop arches over the entrance to the area.

Yet, strangely, the minimalism of Stealth's trademark archway kind of undersells the ride making it appear shorter than it actually is. That is, of course, until a striking red Chevy-themed train soars over the arch, when all of a sudden you're reminded just how tall Stealth is.

The whole corner of Amity that Stealth is in feels strangely displaced. Frankly, there's not much to look at, and it feels uncomfortably open and sterile. This isn't helped by the fact that in front you have the ground-hugging launch track with nothing behind it - no other rides, no trees, no scenery - nothing.

To the left, you have a large expanse of paving, then beige shingle.

Tucked away awkwardly to the right, meanwhile, is the station that uses the same stand-offish architecture as Rita - Queen of Speed at Alton Towers. No pretty canopy or station design here, just an exposed platform clad in corrugated metal.

While many people have complemented Stealth on theming, there really isn't much to compliment from where I'm standing. A WWTP Radio Airstream trailer brightens up an otherwise sterile area, and the winch house at the end of the launch track is good for continuity, if a somewhat easy-to-miss touch.

The entrance is marked by what is fast becoming the biggest cliche in ride entrances, a tyre (Rita - Queen of Speed, Vild-Svinet etc) surrounded by a messy melee of signs, both showy (0-80mph in 2.3 seconds) and advisory (warning of so-called rollbacks).

The queue, like most of Thorpe's queues, is a largely uninspiring vague meander, but in the case of Stealth is brightened up with interaction from the WWTP DJ who can do shout outs between the playlist of the best of 1950s Americana.

It isn't until the very end of the queue that it properly begins to interact with the ride, running under the launch track, then briefly parallel to it before climbing the stairs to the main station.

The station is as much of a flatpack affair as they come with the race control tower overlooking a largely flat and featureless platform. The train is unloaded further along the track before moving along, empty, into the main station.

The train has just 20 seats, all with Intamin's new-style overhead restraints, which are best, described as an overhead lapbar with a rubber vest. Unlike Air, they're nowhere near as figure-hugging, which on Rita - Queen of Speed can be a problem, but for Stealth, they're more than up to the job.

With the restraint down, seatbelt fastened, 40 curious eyes cast their gaze towards the row of lights at the front of the station which count down to the launch.

One red light. Two lights. Three. Four. Five. Then green.

Go go go!

Before you can inhale enough air to scream, 40 now-bleary eyes are streaming their way down the launch track, everything in their periphery a blur before you feel the launch let go as the track peels away from the ground into a vertical climb.

Curling up into the top hat, you have time to savour every moment as miles per hour slowly ebb away with you spiralling towards the clouds. Suddenly, the track levels out into a peak, the train slows and teeters leaving you a moment to regain composure.

Then, the horizon little by little begins to climb as the train slowly edges over the top of the arch, soon gathering speed as it begins its vertical descent, quickly but smoothly twisting to the left, dropping down towards the pathway below, pulling away and arching over the entrance into the area before offering a strange mixture of forces as it hits a steeply-banked magnetic brake run.

The final turn into the unload station is accompanied by nervous giggles and whoops of delight. At this point, it is hard to deny that Stealth leaves you breathless.

But that isn't to say it is unique, world class or indeed an icon. It was the bare minimum that Tussauds could get away with.

The launch, like all Intamin rocket coasters is phenomenal. There is absolutely no period of acceleration - in the click of your fingers, you are already at top speed. While there is a difference of 20mph between Stealth and Alton Towers' Rita - Queen of Speed, this difference is hard to quantify, and you soon begin the climb up Stealth's trademark element.

Like every other Intamin rocket coaster in the world, the top hat too is good. The twist to and from the apex is as subtle and fluid a transition as you can get at the best part of 80mph. The top meanwhile, ranges from having a good amount of airtime in the back, to absolutely none in the front, although the view alone makes that concession worthwhile.

This isn't the extreme airtime-fest of Intamin's mega coasters, it is gentle, drawn out and sustained well into the drop back down to the ground. It's B&M quality airtime, not the artificial and aggressive airtime normally associated with Intamin rides.

To the restraints' credit, though, there is enough freedom to enjoy every negative G of Stealth's airtime - had Stealth have had lapbars, the chances are you would have been pinned in too tightly to adequately enjoy the sensation.

The bunnyhop is unfortunately a messy end to the ride. Front seat riders enjoy the slightly odd sensation of smooth, delicate airtime coupled soon after with the feeling of quickly being pushed forward into the restraints as the train hits the brakes, while those in the back of the train don't really get anything from an element that promised so much.

The largest criticism Stealth deserves is that it is too short. Yes, of course, the ride is only about the launch and top hat, but that was by design. So much more can be done with the idea, and if all coasters were designed with such a despondent and defeatist attitude, they'd rarely get beyond the first drop that is often a highlight by default.

Kanonen doesn't have a problem sustaining a good ride beyond the top hat, nor does Movie World's Superman Escape, so it is plainly obvious that there is more mileage in the idea than just a launch and a top hat.

Even before it opened, Stealth was dated. Already, there are taller versions. There are longer versions, there are faster versions, there are versions that have lots of airtime hills and inversions, and Stealth only has brake-run in the shape of a bunnyhop to its credit.

The argument that people wouldn't have ridden Xcelerator et al doesn't hold water with me. As an icon, it should give the park a real identity, not one that it is trying share the limelight with six other coasters that are at least the same height, as well as a handful of others that instead use length to their advantage.

I'd like to think Coaster Kingdom looks at more than just the raw ride experience itself, and the overall impact that a ride is likely to have in the years to come. As a ride, Stealth probably gets a full compliment of five stars. As a coaster, what there is of it - four stars... at a push.

But, as an icon? Just the three I'm afraid.

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:

  • A fast-paced high-octane ride with a launch that leaves you breathless
  • Top hat is an interesting and exhilarating contrast to the launch
  • WWTP Radio adds a bit of atmosphere to an otherwise tedious queue line

Bad points:

  • But the ride is too short, the bunny hop is a waste, and although a good ride, it isn't the icon it could have been
  • Queue is boring with limited views of the ride

Labels: , ,

Poseidon, Europa Park
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

Poseidon was the son of Titans Cronus and Rhea, brother of Zeus and the husband of Amphitrite, one of the Nereids, by whom he had a son, Triton.

As the god of the sea, Poseidon is often mistaken for Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, and in art is represented as a bearded man, often holding a trident, accompanied by a dolphin.

Poseidon plays part in many ancient myths, including those of his affairs with nymphs of the springs and fountains resulting in his many and somewhat notorious sons such as Orion and Polyphemus, the Cyclops.

Predominantly, however, Poseidon spends many legends locked in battles with like-minded gods such as Athena, who he battled (unsuccessfully) for control of Greek capital Athens.

This was a battle of wit, not of brute force. Whoever could present the people of Athens with the most valuable gift would gain control. Whilst the cascading waterfalls of Poseidon were beautiful, the salty water from them was worthless in comparison to the Olive tree planted by Athena.

Unfortunately, many battles weren't as eloquent, often resulting in gratuitous death and destruction throughout.

With such colourful legends, it is surprising that not more parks have Greek themed areas. Something seems strangely apt by theming a wooden roller coaster after the thunder of Zeus (Tonnerre De Zeus, of course), and just as fitting is Poseidon, the second water coaster from Mack.

The first was Sea World Florida's Atlantis, themed - coincidentally - after the Greek city banished to the bottom of the sea. To compare the two is not as relevant as you may think, seeing that predominantly Atlantis is a log flume with a stretch of coaster track, whereas Poseidon is a roller coaster with a stretch of log flume.

The pathway around the intricately themed Greek area of Europa Park wraps around the beautiful dark blue lagoon, through which the majority of the boat section of Poseidon takes place.

Towards the back, a large cascading waterfall hides the bottom of the final drop, and every so often, a boat scathes through the middle, throwing implausible amounts of water away from its fibreglass hull and over a neighbouring pier stretching along the side of this element.

Behind a rocky horizon, the rich blue track and pale white supports criss-cross as the track goes through an almost contorted section of twists and turns before it drops down past the immense Greek temple that forms the station to this water coaster.

Often I say a station is large. Well, this is complete overkill, utterly contradicting every element of theme park mentality in the book. The masonry on this building is as spectacular as the ride, using solid carved rocks as opposed to breezeblocks covered in sprayed cement, using unyielding yet finely chiselled columns of rock to support the roof 40ft above. The gable ends are decorated with intricate carvings of the gods of Greek mythology and the entrance marked with flaming torches.

It could have been so easy to take the easy option and hide a tin shed like is the case even at Disney, but this building is the real McCoy. Why they don't think visitors are naive enough not to notice is beyond me, but what I do notice, moreover appreciate, is the attention to detail that is clearly absent from pretty much every other theme park worldwide.

The inside of the building is as rich a tapestry as the outside. A row of boats slice through the solid rock floor, Poseidon's enormous trident obliterating the far end, sparkling with power, smouldering at its point of impact.

The boats are identical to those on Valhalla, and are predominantly white, trimmed in varying colours per boat, including blue, teal, gold and red. The sides are re-assuringly high, considering the vast sea of H20 that your vessel will soon sail though.

As your boat approaches the end of this perpetually moving conveyor, you pass through a smashed image of Poseidon shrouded in a rolling red mist before you dip into the water outside.

Your boat slaloms through the ruins of a Greek city, destroyed by quarrelling gods and powers unbeknown to us mere mortals. Once glorious buildings have crumbled into the water, wooden trestles splintered beyond recognition.

A fine mist settles as you continue between the city walls, littered with the destroyed remains of sailing boats, be-headed statues of those who people honoured, fine masonry destroyed.

The boat is soon then lifted onto track via a conveyor belt as it rises to about 45ft. Without warning, gone is the relative comfort of water as the track throws your 'boat' into a arcing 110-degree swooping turn, dropping with surprising haste, regaining height and passing through some block-brakes.

With surprising ferocity, your wheeled craft is thrown into a plunging drop, pulling you to the side towards the ground below. After skimming the ground below, you climb to the side and through another set of brakes that make very little difference.

Once again, you are yanked out, to the side, before dipping down sharply and splashing down into the lagoon. As your boat becomes a boat once again, water is thrown away from the boat as the water level rises over the front and front seat riders get a lap full of water.

The pandemonium that prevailed is now a distant memory as you weave through the lagoon past the city wall which you are now on the outside of. As you approach the walkway that butts the end of the cove, you turn back towards the final, main drop.

Glance left and you see the pandemonium that ensued, the lift-hill climbing to the top of the contorted, curling drops. As you pass a wooden walkway, jutting out between you and the final drop, you begin the climb up the final lift.

The water is left at the bottom as you turn the 180-degree turn up top, once again on wheels. As the pace gets faster, the boat suddenly drops, heading towards a rocky tunnel, full of mist, through which it bursts.

With almost violent airtime, the boat climbs into a sharp bunny hop before splashing through the rolling white-water that forms the bottom of this spectacular drop.

Spray is thrown from the side as you pass through this short white-water section before dipping sharply into the lagoon, onlookers taking shelter as the wall of water is thrown skywards towards the quay to your right and the path to your left, and then, inevitably back onto the front seat riders.

As the boat slows, a final turn past the surrounding walkway takes you back into the fantastic station in which you leave to the left-hand side.

Poseidon excels in many aspects. Not only has the actual ride been improved on sister ride Atlantis by vastly extending it and adding far, far more coaster track, the theme is perfectly apt.

It is an epic show of events throughout and a perfectly evolving plot line that keeps your attention throughout.

It starts off with the fantastically themed and rather atmospheric remains of the Greek city, as you float round in an almost gentile Pirates of the Caribbean manner.

This is all a distant memory, however, once your boat is threaded onto the roller coaster track for a frantic session on the many curving turns and drops that make up the roller coaster section of the ride.

The roller coaster section of the ride is tightly packed and quite chaotic. As your boat is essentially a single roller coaster car, you don't get the feeling of shuffling often associated with swooping turns and multiple brakes which hold the back of the train.

The transition back into water is flawless. You almost forget you're on a coaster until in the blink of an eye you splash down. The slaloming log flume section through the lagoon is an opportunity to catch your breath. It isn't a dead spot, there is plenty to look at, including the final drop.

The final drop is glorious. The airtime sustained throughout is powerful and completely unexpected. The tunnel offers great visuals, and although front seat riders come off worse than anyone else, it isn't intolerably wet for the climate.

Although the ride itself is fantastically engineered for your enjoyment, it is the attraction as a whole that entertains with theming that is thorough, high quality but not intruding.

Should you not be up for riding, watching Poseidon is as much a spectator sport as Tidal Wave. The walkway to the entrance takes you over the final tunnel giving you a good idea of the main prose of the ride.

The splash is impressively vast, and as such, gets the surrounding pathway and the quay between the final lift and drop. Throughout, once again, theming is refreshingly real, sans chicken wire and sprayed concrete.

Poseidon sets the benchmarks Valhalla couldn't and offers an engaging, powerful ride. The attraction successfully upholds the intricate perfection developed elsewhere in the park and proves that a five-star ride doesn't necessarily require knuckles to be a brighter shade of white.

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:

  • Many different elements are used; dark ride, roller coaster and log flume
  • Wet enough for a water ride, but not too wet. Front seat riders will come off wetter, but still not soaked
  • Elaborate and breathtaking theming with an outstanding station
  • Comfortable two-across boats

Bad points:

  • The transitions in the coaster section are slightly jerky
  • Theming is scarce towards the back of the ride

Labels: , , ,

Oblivion, Alton Towers
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This review is scheduled to be re-written in the near future. Please bear in mind that the review may no longer be representative of the ride or our opinion of it

Following Nemesis, Alton Towers had a long, long way to go to even equal what was one of the most well received coasters the world had ever seen. The problem was, Nemesis was a surprise, and nobody was expecting it. Following that though, the park had almost a cult following of enthusiasts, and they were watching every move the park were making.

The first digger arrived, and began to dig what started off as a shallow trench behind the Black Hole. As the season advanced though, the trench got deeper, and deeper, and upon reaching 90ft below the ground level, people really started getting excited.

In a twist of irony, the park seemed to prove everybody wrong. Whilst carefully cropped pictures of the cars were appearing, strange and unrevealing pictures of the track were published, people were speculating about spinning cars, linear induction motors and launches.

When the ride was finally disclosed in early March though, it surprised everyone: Not by the awe-inspiring grandeur of it, but more by the mere simplicity of it. Whilst what the ride does had never been attempted before, many people were shocked that their theories of corkscrewing drops and underground loops were nothing but wishful thinking, and that the finished product was basically a face first freefall.

It seems that to a certain extent, the cagey marketing behind Oblivion backfired. It did well to build excitement and anticipation, but perhaps to the extent that people were expecting far too much. If people look at the ride though, and not the hype that went with it, they'll see a novel concept that Alton Towers had the guts to take on.

Alton Towers got a lot of things wrong with the marketing of the ride. By keeping mum until the last minute, they did surprise many, but probably shot themselves in the foot, as many more were left disappointed. It's the first step in vertical drop coasters, it's a prototype, a ride that they said they would never get, so it obviously represents a pretty risky move.

On reflection though, the ride was marketed for the average visitor to the park, not the coaster enthusiast, and with that in mind, it probably worked a treat to have the area cordoned off with rather non-descript signs and hints near-by.

Now that the ride has opened, and settled in, now that the technical difficulties have been ironed out, it seems Alton Towers have a winner on their hands. It is still one of the parks largest rides, and will remain so for several more years yet, and it's still pulling in the crowds.

Oblivion comes as part of a new look for the parks ageing Fantasy World. As a result, the name was changed to the rather lame X Sector. Rides were hastily drafted in from Festival Park (now the equally poorly named Ug Land), given a new paint job, and the outside of the tatty tent that houses the Black Hole was painted a dark shade of blue.

As you enter, try to ignore the Black Hole, it kills the effect, and instead, home in on Oblivion's first drop. There'll probably be a car perched on the edge of the drop, and after a few seconds, it will curl over the top, plunging down towards the ground, disappearing in a puff of smoke, literally.

Hang a right past this steaming orifice, and you're in the centre of the ride. In front, the station, then, turning anti-clockwise, you can follow the lift hill, into the turn around, that feeds the cars onto the vertical drop. Turning further, after a short absence, the track re-appears flipping cars onto their side, making a sweeping turn behind the Enterprise and jumping onto the brake run behind Submission.

Here, you can see what the area's all about. It's nothing. It's a small collection of rides, painted black. It's quite atmospheric, but required no thought at all on the part of the park, just lots of black paint. Apparently it's themed with a sense of the unknown. It might tickle your fancy, but it doesn't do much for me.

Anyway, as you ogle at Oblivion, you can lick your lips, rub your hands, but don't stand around waiting, either get your ticket to ride, or get straight into the queue. The queue splits into two immediately, and spirals its way up a hill, passing through and under the station. Brainwashing videos try to mess with your mind, with a panicky person fretting over why its called Oblivion. He's soon re-assured by a slightly calmer person, and so it continues. First time, its passable, then on it gets on your nerves.

The queue continues. It gets to a sputnik from where you cross a bridge into the station. The queue is split further so that four rows wait per shuttle, with two being let on at a time. The station is huge, the space isn't used too well though, and it seems quite claustrophobic.

A half decent dance track quietly plays, and monitors above play more hype. Once your shuttle arrives, the gates open, and you start the long walk across the length of the car. Bear in mind, each car is little under half as wide as a Top Spin, and once you find your seat, sit down, pull down the chunky (yet typically comfortable) restraint, and clip in the seat belt.

Once you're squashed into your seats by the seemingly efficient staff, the shuttle departs. Although the seats are reclined, this really can't be appreciated until you start the lift. Why it's so steep is unknown, what is known though, is that it feels vertical, and it's a mighty strange feeling.

The lift is quite unpleasant at the far sides of the car, the vibrations seem to be amplified here, but you will reap the benefits of sitting on the edge soon. The lift is of a normal speed, and at the top, the pace slows, as you turn around, past the Towers.

The view is great, and you have plenty of time to admire, as at this point, the car is veritably crawling. It's a simple trick, and it works. I must admit, it was at this point that my heart was doing twice as much work than it needed to.

Soon, the track disappears, before in no time, you tip forward, your whole weight falling squarely on the restraint, and as the track re-appears, you stop, looking down at the ground, at the people below, and, at the track fading out into a sea of mist.

And then, you drop.

The roar of the train, of the people screaming, the feeling as you float down in a stomach quenching moment is surreal. It takes no time, yet you have time to absorb many thoughts, and in a flash of white, you burst through the mist and into the dark tunnel.

All of a sudden, you seem very enclosed, everything seems very quiet, and as you begin to slump in your chair, you are heading skywards, before in a near blinding moment, you pop out into daylight, are thrown onto your side, as you make an elegant turn behind the two spin rides, dipping past the cameras, before you climb up and hit the brake run.

On the brake run, you'll do the usual euphoric things, you'll rhapsodise over the ride, over the drop, over one of the biggest rushes you'll have experienced on a coaster for, aw, ever. The tunnel and the turn are only there to get you back to the station. The drop is the only element left, so yes, it's a one trick ride, it's a good trick though, and as it stands, probably one of the best elements you can ask for on a coaster.

Oblivion to me, is like a Skycoaster from the comfort of a coaster train. It has the build up, this time in the form of a lift hill, an agonisingly slow turnaround, and the moments of torture on the edge. The rush is over in a second, and then there is the calm after the storm, in which you have time to reflect, and little else.

It works for me, and it works for many. I have seen some people really freak out just before we drop. In the end though, they love it, and will probably beat me back to the queue.

Although it's a great trick it uses for its one trick, the novelty will soon wear off. The drop comes as a huge surprise if you haven't ridden it before, after even a few goes, it still fails to un-impress. After a while though, you'll know what to expect, you will learn when you're going to drop, and you will probably become blase.

There is a moral to this story. Don't expect too much, it won't deliver it. It's a six second ride, nothing more. Don't queue for more than fifteen minutes for it. It's not worth it for a ride that short, however good it may promise to be. Go on with an open frame of mind and it will blow you away.

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:

  • The drop is still breathtaking and offers a feeling worlds apart from even drop towers
  • Quite clever theming playing
  • Many intimidating touches including the slow turn at the top, the pause before the drop and the drop into the tunnel
  • A decent capacity ride that keeps the queue moving

Bad points:

  • A queue isn't rewarded with a generous ride-time unfortunately
  • There's not much to the theming and many touches are looking worse for wear and the ride is in desperate need of a repaint

Labels: , ,

Nemesis Inferno, Thorpe Park
Saturday, February 24, 2007

In the entertainment world, there is one rule that is constant. Whether the medium, sequels are barely ever as good as the original. In fact, statisticians out there might be interested to know that sequels are on average 50% worse than their previous instalment. Furthermore, you may also like to know that 96.8% of statistics given on websites are untrue.

Don't underestimate the power of Nemesis. Along with The Big One at Pleasure Beach, Nemesis holds a position in the psyche of the UK public that is unlikely ever to be toppled. This is largely because, back in 1994, Joe Public wasn't used to seeing elaborate custom-designed roller coasters on his doorstep. These days, he's a bit more picky, meaning that trying to replicate the kind of awe that the 1994 rides managed would be nigh-on impossible in this day and age.

As a result of people becoming a bit more ride-savvy it made perfect sense to re-use the Nemesis name for Thorpe Park's 2003 B&M inverted coaster, at least from a marketing perspective. Artistically, the connection between the two rides is rather weak, as there is no real thematic link between Nemesis, the alien monster in a permanent strop, and Nemesis Inferno, the volcano threatening to turn the entire Staines area into desolate wasteland.

I wouldn't normally have compared the ride to its illustrious Staffordshire counterpart, but the use of the Nemesis name does directly invite it. We might as well establish now that Nemesis is far superior to Inferno (as we'll call it from now on to save confusion). However, given that Nemesis is widely acknowledged as one of the very finest coasters ever built, that would be like dismissing Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper by saying "it's crap compared to his Mona Lisa".

The biggest difference between the two rides, as far as the first timer is concerned, is that Inferno is far less intimidating. Most notably, the music is relatively calm compared to the thunderous Wagner-like score of Nemesis. Visually, the area is slightly more cartoon-like than the bleak industrial wilderness of Alton's Forbidden Valley. If nothing else, the comparison gives a good idea of how the Tussaud's style changed in the nine years between the two rides.

Fortunately one aspect of that style that has remained is Tussaud's love of building public pathways that venture all over the ride site. What this means is that both spectators and those in the queue are afforded numerous close-up views of the action. Should you be wretched enough to be forced to walk the entire queue line, you have quite a jaunt ahead of you. After a tour of the undergrowth around the ride's twisted finale, the queue eventually heads back to the base of the volcano, and up the narrow staircases that lead to the loading platform. Lack of space means that the queue incorporates several mind numbing cattle-grid sections to soak up the crowds, however, there is a further cattle-grid at the base of the volcano that frustratingly can't be skipped, even on the quietest of days.

Scaling the volcano, a nice view emerges of the man section of the ride, offering a nice taster of what lies in wait. As with all major Tussaud's coasters, a front seat queue forks off from the main line as it enters the station, although astonishingly, this fact is not advertised or explained in any way, leaving newbies to wonder what difference it makes which way they go.

The station itself is closely modelled on that of the original Nemesis, although with slightly nicer decor (to be fair, nice decor is the last thing you'd expect to find in an alien's stomach). Riders are generally left to choose their own seats, which soon come gliding into view from stage left.

The floor drops, with the neat added touch of a special flourish of music and a bit of red lighting, and the train trundles out of the station. One original feature of Inferno is that, because the station is high above the ground, there is a nice little run of track before we arrive at the lift hill. This takes us on a quick tour of the volcano's innards, complete with red lighting and mist effects. This is a tremendous way to get the ride off to a flying start, although the only downside is that the mist effect tends to leave you absolutely freezing, which is hardly a feeling I'd associate with the inside of a volcano.

The main section of the ride leads with a fairly bog-standard B&M opening gambit. The lift hill affords views across the park, and of the unappetising rubbish dump behind KFC, before the age-old story of a twisted drop, vertical loop, and inline twist. In all honesty, only with the inline do things liven up, offering a nice punch of action, before diving into the undergrowth, turning around, and jumping into the first of two barrel rolls.

For the purists out there, yes Inferno is indeed the first time B&M built their signature interlocked corkscrews into an inverted coaster. However, in inverted form, this fact is barely noticeable, although the tight turnaround between the two offers a nice sharp whip effect.

From the second corkscrew, the ride enters what for me is its definite highlight, a swooping figure-of-8 above what is authentically themed as a rancid bog. Unfortunately, this is cut short as the height of the station requires that the ride ends while the train still has the energy to make it back up to its starting height. However, unlike other high-stationed coasters, such as Drayton Manor's G-Force and Shockwave, Inferno does at least end with a suitably enjoyable climax.

As we trudge down the rather bleak exit ramp (an area of the park that pays tribute to its history as a cement mine), and past an advert suggesting we now go and ride the original Nemesis (a complement Alton Towers fails to return), we get ample time to consider what has just happened and form our opinions of the ride.

Nemesis Inferno is not a world-class coaster. Far from it. Unlike the original, there is a distinct feeling that much of the ride is just B&M on autopilot. As with Phantasialand's Black Mamba, my main frustration with the ride is that the highlights tend not to be the inversions, but the sweeping turns and helices. Given that the park had just 12 months earlier opened Colossus, a coaster with an inversion count in double figures, I get the feeling that Inferno was a perfect opportunity to do something a little different with the inverted coaster format.

Probably my favourite innovation about Inferno is the beginning. As with Pleasure Beach's Big Dipper, the preamble before the lift hill works wonders to make the ride feel more complete and fulfilling. This is one thing I would love to see incorporated into more and more coasters in the future, as it gives a huge amount of value for such a short (and therefore inexpensive) piece of track.

To me, Alton Towers' Nemesis is a grade A coaster, whereas Inferno is definitely a grade B. However, one thing saves Inferno's bacon. Colossus. The difference between the two Nemesis coasters is that Alton needed a headline ride to grab the headlines, which is a role that Nemesis played (and more remarkably, still plays) to perfection. Inferno doesn't need to play this role for Thorpe Park because Colossus was already playing it by the time Inferno opened. Colossus and Inferno complement each other beautifully - while Colossus is aggressive, intense, and challenging; Inferno is graceful, re-rideable, and for want of a better word, nice. Riding Inferno is not an event in the way that riding Nemesis or Colossus is, but Inferno has its own niche and is a success in its own terms.

If you ride Inferno expecting Nemesis II, then you might well conclude that the "rubbish sequel" theory applies as much to coasters as it does to anything else. If, however, you look at it more as being "Diet Nemesis", and focus more on how it fits into Thorpe Park, rather than the pantheon of coasters world-wide, then you'll see that actually, it does it's job pretty well. If Inferno were the park's sole headlining ride, then I'd probably be sitting here writing a much more scathing review, but as it is, Inferno may be a bit of a wasted opportunity, but as a ride it is OK by me.

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:

  • Compliments Thorpe Park's other coasters very well
  • Pathways interact with the ride excellently, as has become a Tussauds trait
  • The pre-lift run offers a unique start to the ride
  • Excellent ending, shying away from the temptation of another inversion

Bad points:

  • Comparisons to Nemesis are inevitable, and unfortunately it can't hold a candle to the original
  • The theming is half hearted in places - the exit ramp is extremely ugly
  • Theming such as geysers, mist, lighting and the like are unreliable

Labels: , ,

Nemesis, Alton Towers
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This review is scheduled to be re-written in the near future. Please bear in mind that the review may no longer be representative of the ride or our opinion of it

Lets briefly reflect on the importance of Nemesis, the 1994 inverted coaster at Alton Towers, Staffordshire:

Firstly, this was the first major roller coaster that Tussauds installed at Alton Towers. The 1992 duo (Runaway Mine Train and the Haunted House) deliberately dipped their toes cautiously into the large pool that SW3 (soon to become Nemesis) dived straight into.

Nemesis was another indication of what direction Tussauds wanted to take Alton Towers. Unsurprisingly, the parks' operators reported healthy attendance.

Furthermore, Nemesis was the catalyst of many peoples' enthusiasm towards coasters. It shared the 1994 limelight with Blackpool's Big One with Drayton Manor's Shockwave edging in stage right. Unsurprisingly, the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain reported record enrolment into the club of enthusiasts.

At the risk of being immortalised in granite on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, John Wardley stepped forward to share kudos for a true British phenomenon.

Reported to be the "World's most intense roller coaster experience", it took only a couple of circuits before the ride proved too much to a super-fit Gladiator who was actually ill (much to the delight of Alton's marketing department).

Nemesis broke the mould in many ways. Designers had to use awkward criteria set by the council to hide Nemesis from outside of the park. Extensive excavation made it possible for the ground-hugging ride to be built predominantly below ground level which unquestionably improves the sensation throughout.

The existence of Nemesis isn't apparent until you're virtually at the entrance. Fictionally, a large hole has been torn into the Staffordshire landscape in which the monster (station) is pinned down by hundreds of tons of steel (the ride).

Very little track is visible, but the impact is spectacular never the less as the train explodes through a tight helix disappearing deep down into the rocky abyss below.

The queue is over-rated and a shadow of its former self. Where it formerly took you around the precipice of the 90ft deep crater, you are now directed to the left away from the ride and through a copse under the lift.

Despite the pathway being cobbled in chewing gum and cigarette buts in the puddles in the holes torn into the wall of the graffiti-covered station, your attention is drawn to the vertical loop where track drops deep underground before exploding into an arc above your head.

The station is very small and you are left to your own devices. Walk right for the front, or left for the remainder of the train. Back right is to be highly recommended should you not want to do the front.

Nemesis is all about destroying your sense of well-being. You can imagine designers working to a checklist of terrifying effects:

1. Ensure train heads towards and over queue-line at every available opportunity. Check.
2. Use buzzwords like "fright" and "intense" in dialogue and on signs. Check
3. Compose dramatic and harrowing soundtrack. Check
4. Use a haunting shade of sepia to colour the attraction. Check

Everything is there to make new riders feel about an inch tall.

The ride gets off to a re-assuring start once you sit in the comfortable, body-hugging seat and pull down the substantial over-head restraint. The lift follows the contours of the ground below, so at the top, instead of towering over the park and plunging into a near-vertical downward spiral, a simple 90-degree turn smoothly whips you off the lift into what can only be described as a gentle ramp.

Ironically, following the ground down a shallow drop gives a great sense of speed. Instead of quickly accelerating up to 50mph, rocks, grass and the pink water below soon become a blur as you get faster - faster... before you dip sharply down over a line of ducking queuers before pulling skyward into a sky-scraping barrel roll. From following the ground to rolling high through the air is a contrast only a few rides can pull off.

The force of Nemesis soon becomes apparent as you drop from the barrel roll into a tight, highly banked downward helix. As your feet follow the fence, your arms fight the force as the ride burrows itself deep down into the ground, pulling up at the last moment and rolling clumsily through an inline twist. Riders curl up into a foetal position as the train barely misses the station building and arms and legs head in all directions towards the bloody tentacles and body of the Nemesis monster.

With heartbeats heading skywards, you follow a waterfall upstream into a stall turn. A sharp turn flattens out at the top before sharply pulling you downward again deep down into the ground. Take a breath as you head towards the mucky water below before the train is pulled away from a wall and into an incredibly forceful vertical loop dropping out past a waterfall into a tunnel the size of a rabbit hole, exploding out of the ground into a swooping turn before being tugged down faster than gravity under a bridge.

As you head towards the wreck of a Mushroom Cloud Tour bus you are pulled away at the very last moment through one of the best surprise inversions ever - a ground-hugging barrel roll that once again sends you through a dark tunnel into a final turn before snapping upright into the brakes.

Nemesis is not the most intense coaster in the world, but it does have some very extreme, G-happy elements that make the ride stand out.

Nemesis starts slowly, evolving into something that becomes a relentless thrill, continually getting faster and wilder as each foot of track is conquered. Each element becomes more and more extreme and the feeling of recklessness is quite exquisite as the ride plays with the surrounding scenery to great effect.

Although often considered a forte, should you not be familiar with the cumbersome 20-minute legend, the theming is weak and confusing.

Sole onus falls upon the station, themed as the mighty Nemesis monster, a wicked alien bent on revenge after being awoken from its slumber. To those who haven't heard the legend, the rivers of blood look like pink lemonade, the station appears a non-descript mess of sprayed concrete and chewing gum and the scrap metal strewn throughout irrelevant.

Whilst under the ride is a comprehensive labyrinth of pathways for the ride to interact with, the messily implemented Virtual Queue has resulted in most of this being closed off and rendered impassable to those not riding - a big selling point when the ride first opened.

Focusing on the ride alone, highlights are well paced throughout and include the powerful first helix, the sharp and feisty vertical loop and finishing well with the surprise barrel roll.

Foot-choppers play an important role in the ride, which as well as making the feeling of ever-impending doom so evident, makes the ride seem twice as fast as it is.

Getting faster every year, Nemesis is really showing its true colours now. Whilst it never fails to deliver the inline twist has become too fast and lumbering to really have the impact it originally did.

Slowly accelerating like Zorba's Dance and with pacing as impeccable as a seasoned line dancer, as a coaster, Nemesis will never fail to deliver. But the overly complex theming, grubby presentation of the ride and the inaccessibility of half of the pathways due to Virtual Queuing weaken the experience of what is otherwise a contemporary classic.

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:

  • Truly original and way ahead of its time in terms of ride, theme and style
  • Complex back story and legend to go with it
  • Lavish theming including the monster, abandoned buses and machinery
  • Extremely intense coaster, very forceful but still smooth even into its second decade
  • Impeccable pacing despite the size of the coaster
  • The tunnels and caverns add infinitely to the ride experience with excellent foot-chopper sensations throughout

Bad points:

  • Can often look tatty, although the park have spent time on improving the appearance of the ride
  • Story is perhaps too difficult to understand the theme if you're unaware of the legend

Labels: , , ,

Jungle Coaster, Legoland Windsor
Saturday, February 24, 2007

Did you know that in the time it took you to read to... here... four acres of rainforest were destroyed? With the forests and jungles of earth in such dire straits, it's good to see that Legoland are working hard to bring a bit of the jungle to a part of the planet which isn't known for it's tropical horticulture; Windsor.

Don't believe everything you see on television, though. The jungle is far more than (and by Legoland's definition, anything but...) tropical flora and fauna. Lest we forget the other parts of the jungle that form our planet's delicate ecological balance such as shingle, bamboo walls and a talking (and fairly short tempered) waterfall.

Always the bridesmaid, Legoland was the last of the Legoland parks to get the coaster, which had opened as Project X Test Track, Technic Coaster and X-treme Racers at Legoland Deutschland, California and Billand respectively.

In all cases, Legoland's weapon of choice has been German manufacturer Mack's park version of their Wild Mouse. Falling from a lofty height of 50ft, the four seater cars go down an uncharacteristically massive first drop, through a series of hairpin turns before dropping down to a few ground level turns and drops.

Whilst the ride is unmatched within Legoland in terms of stature with the forest green track rearing up and plateauing somewhere above the tree line it does strangely lack a 'wow factor' that should be associated with the biggest ride in the park.

In this respect, Jungle Coaster is either shown up by the fact you're looking down on the ride from the upper echelons of the park (where, from such vantage points it blends in to the green of the surrounding trees) or on your direct approach to the ride you really see it from the most unflattering of angles with the first triangular turn off the lift quickly flicking the cars around out of view.

The ride boundary is marked with towering bamboo brought to life with a colourful mural of what is almost an Aztec design. Frankly, the barrier-like shield is fairly stand-offish from the outset, and the ride is orientated in such a way that the hairpin bends are hidden away around the back as if they're something to be embarrassed by. Considering Wild Mouse coasters are staged in terms of presentation with regards to the raked hairpin bends cascading down the front of the ride, Jungle Coaster really seems ashamed of what it has to offer.

Less abashed is the talking waterfall, under which the first drop dives. A tan-coloured archway supports a cascading wall of water with a stone spherical head perched on top. Ignoring the booming voice suggesting otherwise, curious kids are lured towards this waterfeature by the colourful tentacles of a tropical plant, dipping in and out of the water like some sea monster before climbing up and over the surrounding fence.

Tip-toed children can shout into the open buds of this plastic plant only for it to answer back by repeating what they said. Alternatively, the feisty flora will answer back by spraying a jet of water at you.

The entrance to the ride is less original. The pathway takes you through a parting between two 30ft walls of bamboo past a vertical banner with Jungle Coaster in a Jurassic Park-style font on what looks like dark green graph paper.

Considering Legoland is home to some of the most innovative and detailed queuing areas in the country, it seems a shame that Jungle Coaster follows the recent trend of round-about zig-zags away from the main area of the ride. This wood-panelled queue meanders around a small gravel area to the right of the ride with the occasional rock decorated with a Lego lizard. Nice touches, but pales into insignificance when compared to the beautiful Dragon Coaster queue.

You climb a set of scant metal steps into the station complete with sloping wooden roof. Presumably due to the loading times (more on that later), the cars stop in the station in pairs as opposed to slowly crawl like most other Mack mice. Two unload as two load, which means the ride has fairly efficient operation as you're directed by a member of staff to a pair of airgates.

With individual restraints, deep individual bucket seats and Mack's wealth of TUV certified expertise, you'd think that with their excellent safety record and the fact numerous versions of the ride run unchanged globally would satisfy the notoriously high standards of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), but no, despite the entire restraint system being one of the most secure on comparable rides, the HSE have mandated the installation of airline style seatbelts.

Overlooking even the fact that the ride has historically been proven to be safe, these seatbelts are awkward, cumbersome and are a complete spanner in the works when it comes to the running of what is already a low capacity ride.

Overlooking the unnecessary baggage on the cars, you're left with an excellent car with well proportioned and comfortable seats, if let down by the fact there is a padded grab rail that digs into the knees of all but the shortest riders.

Even beyond the practicalities of the car, it looks fantastic. Each car is finished in a shade of either metallic olive-green or beige and fashioned after a Lego Technic 'racer' with cogs, Lego 'nodules' and mock all-terrain tyres.

Once riders have finished adjusting the seatbelt and have worked out which end is which, you are advanced out the station, around a tight 180-degree bend before you're launched onto a swift skyward climb with the first drop elegantly presented to your right.

The tight triangular turn off the lift is amazingly effective and throws you straight into a massive straight first drop. As the drop bottoms out, with a flash of the ride camera you dive into the tight tunnel beneath the waterfall before peeling back away from the ground up to a plateau about 40ft above the ground.

After a quick kiss from some brakes, you go through the first hairpin bend, orientated to take you back into the main body of the ride before the next takes you around a 90-degree bend which throws you into the perpetual zig-zagging synonymous with wild mice.

For a mouse, these are amazingly smooth and lack the abrupt ferocity of Maurer mice, although become faster and faster as you turn each corner. The last two turns in particular are as peppy and exciting as you can expect from a steel mouse before you break out of the hairpin bends and into a sweeping unbanked turnaround that swoops downwards around the back of the course and into a fairly small but sharp drop, climbing back up, whipping through a tight hairpin turnaround before another similarly sharp drop into a further set of brakes.

Even our all-terrain 4WD Technic racer concedes defeat at this point and slows to a lowly gait as it heads around another hairpin bend, along a straight before heading around a final unbanked turn and into the final brakes which slow you smoothly before jolting violently to a stop.

In almost every aspect, Jungle Coaster is extremely average. From looks to ride experience, every positive thing about the ride can be answered back with a negative point.

In terms of looks, the ride looks very refined for a Wild Mouse. The slender support columns branching out at the top look so much better than the messy latticework structure used on travelling mice.

But, most of the ride is hidden by its orientation, layout and location, and also by the ugly wall of bamboo around the entrance area of the ride.

With regards to the actual ride experience, well again, it's mixed. The first drop is an absolutely brilliant way to start the ride, although the ride drops the baton with respect to a good follow up. The upper hairpin turns are pretty forceless, although the ride wakes up further along the top level with far more feisty turns before ending with an absolutely shameful finale where the ride just ambles around the last two turns.

And finally, the presentation and theming of the ride: The fountain is brilliantly detailed and bears Legoland's signature in terms of originality and quirky humour. But there is little else to suggest that this is a Legoland ride. The delicate touches that abound most of their major rides are absent, and the ride lacks, well, Lego. Other than a few Lego lizards in the queue, you will find a pretty bare ride with little in the way of originality.

Jungle Coaster would be better rated at many other parks, but there is the inescapable fact that this is a very normal coaster at a park that frowns upon the normal and goes that extra mile. Jungle Coaster simply does not do this.

And so, therefore, an average score for an average ride.

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:

  • An excellent first drop and some good hairpin bends
  • Nicely presented ride

Bad points:

  • A low capacity ride, not helped by the annoying addition of seatbelts
  • Any good moments are let down with a poor ending and intrusive brakes
  • The theming is not up to Legoland's usual standard

Labels: , ,

Goliath, Walibi World
Saturday, February 24, 2007

Imagine if The Louvre inherited a long-lost priceless painting by Picasso that had been discovered by chance in storage. Critics hail it as simply the finest ever work of art cast onto canvass, and this single painting quickly becomes the new Mona Lisa, synonymous with the art of expression through a paintbrush.

Of course, as any discerning gallery would do, The Louvre put this masterpiece on display... by dumping it in the broom cupboard and giving someone the key.

Intamin are very much the Picasso of the moment in terms of roller coasters. Not only are their works of art eye catching and bold, more often than not, they're quite unlike anything else seen before.

In terms of Mega Coasters, their first work of art in Europe was put proudly on display at Holiday Park in Germany. Their anthology of rides had much to be desired, but Expedition Ge-Force did more than tip the balance back in their favour as it has taken root at the top of many polls and top tens ever since its 2001 debut.

Weaving throughout the park like the Bayeux Tapestry, this is a masterpiece they're clearly proud of with the orange track threading its way through the wooded park and soaring over the labyrinth of pathways and the park's river rapids ride.

Walibi's presentation of Goliath, meanwhile, is comparably bizarre. If Walibi World was a trophy cupboard, Goliath would undoubtedly be the biggest, shiniest trophy of all. However, as it rewards the holder for being Plank of the Month, it takes its rightful place right at the back, where people can still stare in wonderment, yet maintaining an irritating sense of anonymity. Like putting a Picasso in a broom cupboard, Goliath's presentation does strike me as an opportunity lost.

While the placid landscapes of the Netherlands do little to allay the ever-present threat of flooding, it certainly helps when it comes to giving short coasters a spectacular presence on the horizon. The grassy green track is held 150ft aloft with the slender deep purple supports - which, for a mega coaster, is nothing to brag about - and sprawls along the lakeside to the left hand side of the park.

Despite my criticisms of this 'mega' coaster being such a recluse, from parts of the car park it forms a remarkable landscape of serpentine track gracefully rising high into the sky before dropping out of view behind the tree line.

Goliath is at the end of a wooded pathway with the brash industrial-style station nestled amongst the trees with the electric green track contrasting the grey hues of the station and soaring into the sky above. The rest of the ride is completely hidden from view until you walk through the mainly cattlepen-style queue line against which the final furlong of bunny hops run.

The station is small, but gives budding heroes the chance to take on Goliath from whatever seat they want - whether front or back. With two trains and a moderate ride time, Goliath deals well with the queues, especially when compared to an almost identical set-up on Expedition Ge-Force where it takes staff almost ten minutes to push restraints down until they hear the crack of bone.

The rolling stock on Goliath is fairly comfortable, especially in comparison to Expedition Ge-Force where you cannot move your entire lower body due to the design of the floor.

The trains are stripped down to the bare fundamentals - a seat and a restraint. If you like the cosy feeling of sitting inside the train, well, you're out of luck as Goliath's trains are like driving a go-kart in a high chair.

With bums on seats, the train starts the climb up the lift before Goliath does everything in his power to keep your bum off the seat. Swiftly climbing the lift, the ride suddenly becomes much less candid with the entire layout mapped out beneath you.

Suddenly, as you climb, the realisation dawns that this has the potential to be a wonderful, wonderful ride. Every element the discerning mega coaster fan could want is there in front of you; a massive 135ft camelback hill, an over-banked dive, helixes, sharp changes in direction, swooping dives and ground hugging S-turns - surely this ride has what it takes to fulfil the criteria to be simply one of the best rides in the world?

Time to find out.

With absolutely no hesitation whatsoever, the train drops out from under you, curling into a straight first drop tugging you down towards the ground before climbing up into a massive straight camelback hill.

The forces of the ride pull you not only skywards, but forwards too as the train hovers in the sky before dropping into a ground-hugging turn. As your eyes adjust to the speed, Goliath makes another bid for the sky, this time tipping the train up onto its side and over into almost an inversion before curling out and dropping into a sprawling ground-level helix.

The train peels out from this turn, rolls around to the right and smoothly flicks back down to the left before going into a clockwise 380-degree helix. With the train tipped to the right above the lake below, the helix spirals upwards into another right-to-left flick into a swooping dive into the first of three bunny hops.

Under the shadow of the lift hill, the tracks warps 40ft skywards through a neat parabolic hill, the second repeating the gesture as you pass the main queue line, and the third as you soar past the station building.

After this ungainly assault on your body the train hugs the ground as it sweeps around to the left, before recoiling back to the right through a final S-turn and smoothly stopping on the short brake run.

There is simply so much that works to Goliaths' favour - the lakeside setting, the powerful bouts of negative G-force and the potpourri mix of a layout.

But, ironically, these things also represent the mighty Goliath's achilles heel. The lakeside setting, while great, is very aloof. There is no sense of getting a taste of the coaster before you commit yourself to a ride. While it's wrong to expect the entire ride to be open to analysis, it seems a shame that it is a ride only enjoyed when you're ready to take on Goliath's might.

The powerful bouts of negative Gs are quite extraordinary. There is no feeling of this being a natural force as there is on Silver Star - this is a very artificial and manufactured force.

And this is in no way a bad thing.

Between them, Ge-Force and Goliath boast just about the best airtime that there's to be had in Europe. Even the front seat isn't immune from the wonderful sensation of what must be the closest to space exploration without donning a space suit.

But, of course, these massively obvious forces show up the lack of power in other elements, most notably the helixes. The twisting turns in and out of the helixes show how nimble, commanding - yet smooth Goliath can be without having to use powerful bouts of airtime, and while the swoop into the second helix is particularly forceful, neither of the helixes are as exciting as by rights they should be.

But what is good about Goliath is good - really good. The straight first drop removes all need for comparison between this and Expedition Ge-Force, and the camelback following is a nice nod to the similar element found on Goliath's German counterpart.

The over-banked turn, nicknamed the Stengal Dive, is absolutely wonderful. It is worth sacrificing the sublime airtime that this hill could have provided for the obscure sensation of having your head tipped below your feet on what is unanimously classed as a non-looping coaster.

What makes the Stengal Dive yet more interesting, is that for all intents and purposes, it isn't really an over-banked turn as such. This is another example of a very forced manoeuvre, much like Ge-Force's first drop or the sharp turns found elsewhere on Goliath, yet it feels so natural it would feel wrong without it.

The helixes are forgettable, but the ending isn't. The first bunny hop sets you up for the remaining two which seem to do all the hard work, before a ground hugging S-turn highlights the remaining speed before last orders are called.

Overall, Goliath is a cannily apt name - to some, it is an all-conquering giant, but of course that doesn't necessarily guarantee victory in any showdown. Goliath is a wonderful coaster, but there is fleeting promise of better things, which generally go unrealised.

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:

  • A decent length ride, powerful until the end
  • Great mixture of elements including drops, turns and helices
  • Tons of airtime and the unique and highly effective Stengal dive

Bad points:

  • The helices don't deliver
  • The setting of the ride is hidden away to all but the riders

Labels: , ,

Eurosat, Europa Park
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

Europa Park's interpretation of France isn't far wrong. It is completely bedecked with delicate and ornate theming with cobbled streets and street cafes. The pathway swoops dramatically over a rippling river, trimmed with wrought iron railings, finished off with beautiful fountains.

What is most unorthodox, however, is Eurosat, clearly the focal point of this bustling area, but clearly something completely out of the ordinary. The contrast between the fanciful Parisienne buildings and the spherical silver orb of Eurosat is as spectacular as the ride itself.

Even slow-witted visitors will see the similarities between Eurosat and Walt Disney's EPCOT globe, Spaceship Earth, although it would be foolish to think that the inside harks these similarities.

A fragile looking and almost skeletal conical archway supports a slowly rotating globe with Euro Sat on a sash forms the entrance, with white lights cascading down and across the street below.

In the glow of an indigo blue neon Euro Sat sign, the queue swiftly zig-zags to the main entrance.

Once you're let in, an escalator takes you into the building, with scenes of astronauts in a space shuttle to your left. As if you're at a NASA space installation, you briefly queue inside a rather kitsch interpretation of a space centre, with corrugated walls and a neon glow of paladin lighting set into the ceiling.

Windows look out into the stars and constellations outside, before you enter the rather cramped station.

Here it becomes apparent why the queue is so fast moving. Train number 7 rolls into the station, and departs with almost alarming haste.

Each car seats two people meaning it is as bendy as the average slinky. The sleek train is silver with an almost cylindrical front and restrains excited cosmonaughts with individual lap bars.

Trains come into the station with alarming frequency, and here is a good example of German efficiency at it's best, where before the train even stops, the bars spring up and the gates open, and in less than 15-seconds, the train is dispatched.

Seated, you will note that the seats are comfortable and the lap bar unobtrusive. Legroom is adequate as opposed to generous, and if you have long legs, your knees may rub against the padded front of the car.

Conditions in space are reportedly choppy, so brace yourself as it will get rough.

The train is dispatched not long after your bum touches the seat. Through an archway into the gloom, the train pauses briefly. As if you're on a launch pad, an announcement tells us that the conditions on Jupiter are stormy and that the temperature is 450-degrees.

Then, a rich trance track crescendos as you are pulled onto a dark, spiral lift. A cylindrical centre drags the train up, meaning that you pass the wall on your left as the wall on your right follows you.

It is dark, but the atmosphere is electric with upbeat German dance music accompanying your hasty climb into deepest space.

At the top, like an explosion of glitter, the darkened atmosphere bursts into a glittery green light, and dulcet American tones count down from five... four... three... two... one...

You are thrown to the left and dive down in a perpetual spiral, coiling down through the inky blackness throughout delicate white stars. The train tightly snakes down through every turn, getting sharper and sharper.

As you wonder whether this descent continues, an almost implausibly sharp right hand turn sends you careering back in the opposite direction, once again lunging down almost without end.

Again, spectacular green lasers engulf the inside of the sphere in a delicate twinkle before you skim through some mid-course brakes. These hardly hinder the phenomenal pace, and you spiral towards meteors below.

You slalom above these stricken balls of rock, before a swooping turn sends you violently diving down and slicing right through the centre of these black-lit obstacles.

The ride gets quite violent at this point, the train shunting fiercely from left to right as meteors pass on your left, right and above your fragile skull. A climbing turn to the left offers respite as you climb back into the darkness above, before another turn sends you through yet more meteors.

Not as violent, but hardly dull, once again you are thrown in all directions as you avoid collision. A final and surprisingly sharp turn takes you into a light tunnel, funnelling in on the train as you abruptly stop on the final brakes and return to the station.

You haven't even left the station and the train is leaving the station again as you walk quickly down the exit ramp and onto the escalator down, turning to the left and passing through the shop.

Euro Sat is close to being a perfect ride. The theming is a slightly stereotypical interpretation of the future, but the spherical building the ride is crammed into goes to prove that this rather brassy theming is just as easily dated as Disney World's Space Mountain and not because of Europa cutting corners.

Euro Sat is epic. Like many of Europa's rides, music goes hand-in-hand to create a completely immersive experience, this time combining some startling lighting effects and a fast, attention-grabbing roller coaster.

Lighting effects abound. From delicate white stars twinkling above, to a rolling plethora of lasers, the lighting effects are hardly missed by riders, but are careful not to intrude on the darker sections of the ride.

The meteors interact well with the flow of the coaster. You dive down into them, and the train effectively jolts from left to right. It is hardly smooth, but with only a lap bar, is 20-miles away from the town of Discomfort.

The ride delivers quality almost undiscovered by mankind.

The coaster is fast, well paced, forceful and unrelenting. The downward spiral to the right is beautifully highlighted by the sharp whip into the opposing direction, and the scenery perfectly compliments the ride.

With the ride being so steeped in highlights, and with such power until the brakes, as an almost perfect example of a dark coaster, Eurosat is almost everything we expect from a quality coaster.

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:

  • The special effects during the ride are mesmerising
  • A fast, choppy and no-holds-barred coaster
  • Very tight turns and a spiralling layout
  • Decent ride time and a fast-moving queue aided by the enormous capacity

Bad points:

  • Kitsch theming
  • Those with long legs may find the limited legroom painful

Labels: , , ,

Euro Mir, Europa Park
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

The real Mir (Russian for 'Peace') was born in 1986, the time of the Cold War and succeeded in as many things as it failed. Whilst Russia had lost the race to put the first man on the moon, Mir was the first home in space, and by 1995 had taught the two superpowers, the USSR and USA, to co-operate.

Whilst Mir's contribution to material science was limited, Mir itself was a scientific feat of epic proportions. The 135 tonne structure remained in space for fifteen years, orbited earth 88,000 times and played host to a hundred cosmonauts from countries all over the world.

Whilst for the first years living aboard Mir was described as pure and unadulterated tedium, many were more white knuckle than any coaster could ever be with often near fatal consequences.

Numerous incidents later, its fate was sealed. 2.2 billion miles had passed since it was first commissioned, and Russian President Putin announced Mir was to be ditched into the sea in the middle of 2000.

So-called space tourism has become a fundamental part of the Russian space program, funding space stations such as Mir, ISS and the missions to and from these destinations. Only basic training is given to civilians so that they can pay millions to travel into space. Dennis Tito was one of the first and most certainly the most famous.

Europa Park has chosen to celebrate the accomplishments of many countries, predominantly European, by lovingly recreating local architecture, culture and even food.

Euro Mir honours the Russian space programme, predominantly Mir itself.

From the outset, Euro Mir demands your attention. Five cylindrical Mirrored towers form the ride, capturing the surrounding architecture in all their electric-blue incandescent glory, around the summit of which the colourful four car trains slalom, and around the front of which, the track sweeps around in large, plunging arcs down towards the water and lawns below.

The entrance is underneath the training capsule as used by the crew of Mir, suspended from a glass roof, before you enter the darkened corridor that forms the start of the queue.

A darkened staircase lit in UV climbs a storey, black-lit constellations litter the wall, and a rich, dreamy dance track effectively builds the excitement. The station is fantastically organised. A couple of zig-zags line the room before you are filtered off behind the gates on the edge of the platform.

Trains seat sixteen riders in four trains with pairs of riders sitting back to back. They come in bright shades of metallic green, red, mauve and blue and the ride has been known to make use of a people-gobbling nine trains.

It makes no difference as to whether you sit forwards or backwards - the direction in which you travel is as random as the numbers drawn on a Saturday evening's lottery, which of course helps with the loading of trains.

We load the trains. In a demonstration of German efficiency, single riders are hastily paired up clearing the queue of another two people before the comfortable single lap bars are locked, thumbs up are given and the train is powered into the darkness.

As you turn a corner, almost immediately, the smooth rotation of the trains begins. At approximately one rotation every four seconds, it is enough to disorientate, even more so as you pass through a violet tunnel, revolving around the track in a particularly trippy moment of disorientation.

The train pauses as it passes a scene of astronauts working on a space station before you are pulled up into an anti-clockwise spiral lift. The cars once again begin revolving, and an uplifting dance track thumps away with lighting effects en-route.

Every so often, the inside of this tower will light, and a glance upwards will show another train on the lift above you. It is also here that you realise how simple the lift actually is, using a revolving drum in the centre to catch onto a small arm on the train and effectively push it up.

Soon, the drum revolving in the centre becomes just a frame work with a Russian space rocket in the centre and not long after this, you break away from the enormous spiral with a pair of doors sliding open as you approach the outside.

As you exit, the cars once again begin rotating. An unnerving feeling of height is experienced here, with contrasting visions of yourself being reflected from the luminescent towers or of just plain nothing due to the lack of supporting structure.

The track weaving around the top turns 190-degrees before heading off to another tower, around which it turns once again. All the while you are becoming increasingly curious as to which direction you will be travelling for the majority of the ride.

Many turns later, the revolving stops and the train dramatically swoops towards the ground, almost skimming the bushes below, before climbing back up towards the Mirrored towers that form the backdrop of the ride.

As you reach the top, another 180-degree rotation from the train means that the last half of the ride is taken in the opposite direction to the first half. This is where you hope that the first drop was taken forwards.

Another swooping turn takes you around the back of the towers, re-emerging around the front, swooping over the swampland below. You quickly turn around one of the towers, swooping down into a helix.

The pace gets more and more frantic as each turn gets sharper. A quick flash as you head through the base of one of the towers, quickly doing a turn around the back of this tower before tightening into a tight and gutsy helix.

Into another tunnel, this time slightly longer and behind the water that cascades around the rocky base of the towers, before you skim the swamp, water sprays from the sides as a final turn sends you into the brake run and back into the station.

Euro Mir is almost a story, evolving chapter-by-chapter, and building up to a surprisingly climatic ending. The first half almost lulls you into a false sense of security - it could almost be that you're on the wrong ride, enjoying well themed scenes, dramatic lighting and a beautiful dance track.

Once you're outside - it dawns - this is a roller coaster. But to pad it out, the ride is almost like a sedate people mover, slowly gyrating at great height, almost as if to remind you of just how high you are.

And as soon as you swoop into the first arc, the ride is non-stop. It remains well paced, getting more and more intense throughout. The highlight is the tight helix towards the end, and whilst the trend throughout it smaller and smaller turns, when backwards this really takes you by surprise.

Riding Euro Mir is a lottery. You never know which way you're going to be going, to do the second half backwards, though, is to experience Euro Mir at its best. The turning is novel and unique, but it isn't as pointless as standing up (for example) where too much emphasis is burdened on this innovation.

The enclosed section and final roller coaster section of the ride go to prove that this ride is far more than just a turning roller coaster.

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:

  • A very unique concept and different from the myriad of other spinning coasters in the world
  • Deceptively intense with tight turns, helices and spiralling drops
  • The lift hill is almost an attraction in itself, and the music makes the ride very memorable
  • Modern, chique theming

Bad points:

  • The backwards sections may be too disorientating for riders, while those riding backwards in the first section of the ride will get a raw deal as then much of the ride will be taken forwards

Labels: , ,

Dragon's Fury, Chessington World of Adventures
Saturday, February 24, 2007

The legend of St. George has it that a pagan town in Libya was terrorised by a dragon, and as the mutton it fed on waned, citizens were sacrificed in order to control the dragon and supplement its irrepressible diet. Hearing of the impending fate of a local princess, Saint George went to her aid, succeeding where armies had failed in slaughtering the flame-throwing serpent and saving the fair maiden.

Dragons have played an important part in the cultural heritage of mythology the world over, just as dragons have been prevalent in the heritage of Chessington World of Adventures, too. But Chessington wasn't saved from a dragon; it was saved by a dragon - it was just that this dragon came in the form of a Maurer Sohne spinning roller coaster.

Now, spinning coasters aren't particularly new. One of the most famous spinning roller coasters of recent times is Star World (formerly Magic Mountain) that tours the German fairs. This was a custom made ride featuring a long train of egg-shaped cars free to spin throughout the enclosed ride.

But even before Star World, the Virginia Reel was a popular ride at parks like Pleasure Beach Blackpool featuring a zig zag on the side of a fake mountain which would spin the tub like cars before they'd drop through a series of turns into tunnels.

A more modern comparison to the Virginia Reel is the popular spinning coaster from Reverchon. With a course based on the popular Wild Mouse with unbanked sharp hairpin turns and abrupt drops, the ride features Waltzer-like cars which upon reaching the second level of the ride would be free to spin.

Whilst not the best example of a spinning coaster, the Reverchon model did seem to be the catalyst in the recent explosion of spinning coasters. Since the ride debuted at Foire Du Trone, Reverchon has sold over thirty of the units globally, including a pair to Disneyworld, Florida.

Since the success of this ride, other manufacturers including Gerstauler and Maurer Sohne have since profited from the idea of rotary roller coasters, refining the idea to include new elements. Whilst Maurer started off with the pocket-sized X2000 coaster, it included new elements such as a spectacular immelman turn, a vertically banked horseshoe of steel galloping skywards.

Maurer successfully dabbled in the idea of custom spinners in 2002 with Winjas, two unique roller coasters featuring not only the celebrated immelman turn, but vertical lifts, see-saws and falling track effects.

Tussauds decided to purchase two of these custom spinners in 2002; one for Alton Towers (Spinball Whizzer), and one for Chessington. Both resisted the urge for supplemental extras such as see-saws, but both would be custom, and both advertised heavily as being family coasters.

From head to tail, Dragon's Fury is a 1771ft meander of forest green track supported by a forest of ruby-red supports surrounding the entire new area for 2004; Land of the Dragons. Sprawling across many acres of land, further compounded by the fact that the entrance is actually outside Land of the Dragons, it is no surprise that infrequent visitors often have a quest on their hands to find the entrance.

Once found, however, there is no avoiding the unmistakable signature of Tussauds, where the coaster is presented in quite explicit detail as it performs its spectacular aerial dogfight high above you.

Like a fireball falling from the sky, a four seater car topples over the top of a 60ft tall lift hill, plunging towards the pathway below, scraping past the ground before sharply pulling up into a vertical (by Oblivion's yardstick) immelman turn before disappearing out of view. This is an opening sequence few family coasters can boast.

The entrance is a small hamlet of buildings and archways serving various purposes such as photo collection, Fastrack ticket collection as well as the two entrances to the ride, all decorated with crumbling stone pillars and dragon head gargoyles.

Adding flair to an already enchanting entrance area, 'Claudius', an animatronic dragon infrequently rears his head from a cave to the left of the entrance, threatening children who dare touch the treasure he's guarding with a deep roar and an animatronically angsty gesticulation of his outstretched noggin.

The queue meanders through a forest of charred trees through a fairly mind-numbing zig-zag in front of the station. The queue isn't great, it has to be said, but it is good to see Chessington's humour, however bad, making a simple no smoking request a bit more interesting;

"What did the big dragon say to the little dragon? You're too young to smoke"

[token pause for laughter to fade]

Before you enter the station, you're counted up into groups of four, pairing up pairs and adding single riders into the mix as necessary. This means that once in the station, delays are kept to a minimum as every car is filled to capacity.

So that Dragon's Fury can efficiently gobble up the queue (all part of a balanced diet), the cars don't stop in the station, instead slowing down to a crawl. As well as keeping the cars moving through the station, this also has the psychological benefit of adding a sense of urgency to the loading procedure meaning people get into the trains with far less hesitation than on other comparable rides.

Riders sit in pairs, back to back with comfortable lap bars and an O-shaped grab handle which you can hold almost like handlebars on a racing bike.

And so this reign of fire begins by climbing a startlingly quick lift hill. Get ready to savour every moment of what's forthcoming, as it'll be over in half a jiffy. Forward-sitting riders only are privy to knowing when your car will crest the top of the lift - a hint to back seat riders; it's sooner than you think. Without hesitation, the car curls around to the side, falls from orbit down a steep drop and buries itself down into the ground before sensationally pulling up into a vertical climb, turning around a wonderful 180-degree turn on its side before plunging vertically back down towards the ground.

A straight climb straightens out into a mid-course brake run. Virtually unhindered, the train drops straight down, climbing back up and abruptly turning a 90-degree left-hand turn into another set of brakes.

Once again, the brakes offer no break in pacing as the train threads itself through a forest of treehouses and rope bridges through a downward spiral, pulling up into a dreamy camelback hill arching high over Griffin's Galleon (Zierer Kontiki), swooping through a left-hand curve, climbing into another set of brakes.

Untamed, this beast spirals groundwards through a heavily banked downward helix, swooping out into a shallow mid-course lift hill. As this dragon makes a bid for the sky once again, your car still turns before you slalom at roof height through an undulating S-turn, dropping down between a hedge and the back of a building, bouncing abruptly up through a fairly fruitless double up, passing through the last set of mid-course brakes before slaloming down through a final banked S-turn and into the final brakes.

With a final whip of its tail, a comically rudimentary system of a 10ft long bar thumps the side of the car whilst it passes through the brakes in order to tame the spinning and lock the car so that it can snugly fit back into the station.

So is Dragon's Fury hot stuff, or does it just blow hot air?

Fury is without a doubt red-hot.

For years now Chessington have been trying to tell us they're a family park as if this was justification for years of neglect and under investment. Since then, Hocus Pocus Hall opened, which, as enchanting as it is, hardly sent waves through the amusement industry.

Dragon's Fury accompanies Land of the Dragons, an area for younger rapscallions including Griffin's Galleon (Zierer Kontiki), Sea Dragons (small round ride) as well as numerous play areas.

However, Dragon's Fury is specifically marketed as a family coaster. Traditionally, only Disney can design a good family coaster with any exceptions being accidental as opposed to calculated. With parks being offered a greater choice of family rides by manufacturers, they are now in a better position than ever to offer a ride with true universal appeal as opposed to palming off hand-me-down kids coasters as a 'family ride'.

In an age where in terms of roller coasters bigger is better, it is easy to become fazed and actually forget that theme parks are for. They're not supposed to be endurance tests, they're just supposed to be fun. Although the feeling of taking on a coaster and conquering it is often gratifying, it is often refreshing to come off a coaster grinning from ear to ear.

It is this sensation that broadens the appeal of a roller coaster - even the best white knuckle coaster in the world couldn't satisfy as many people as the best family coaster.

Dragon's Fury bore the heavy responsibility of becoming the park's first new signature ride since Vampire as the theme park headed into a new era. It took on this challenge and won.

Even ignoring the objective of this ride, you're left with a ride that is a pure placebo. Children have the feeling of having conquered a major coaster, whilst parents enjoy a ride that is just great fun.

Highlights are in abundance. The way the ride goes off almost exploring Land of the Dragons is inspired, and the ride features one of the best opening sequences that can be asked of it dropping down a steeply banked drop into a sensational immalman turn. Even escaping the gaze of voyeurs on the ground, the ride continues through a wonderful bunnyhop and two excellent helices.

The midcourse lift is actually not too much of an intrusion at all, and actually encourages some of the most pronounced spinning in the ride, as does the roof-top meander following.

The double up is, quite frankly, ineffective, but the swooping s-turn into the final brakes is a good way to finish, if not up to the standard the rest of the ride has set.

Nevertheless, the ride is explosive from start to finish without having too much bite for younger explorers. Dragon's Fury will undoubtedly have an indelible effect on Chessington, and if Fury is indicative of the direction Tussauds want to take the park, then I welcome this change with open arms.

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:

  • A true family coaster - can be a challenge for younger kids but keeps parents and teens entertained
  • Capacity is adequate, and the queue moves at a reasonable pace, if not fast

Bad points:

  • Although a family ride, the car design has groups of four back-to-back limiting rider interaction
  • Dragon's Fury has quite lazy theming - what there is is fine, but the detail has been scrimped upon

Labels: , , ,

Big One, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Saturday, February 24, 2007

Since 1988, the UK interest in roller coasters has necessitated one of the largest clubs of 'enthusiasts' outside America. Whilst back then there were plenty of reasons to become interested in roller coasters (mostly thanks to Blackpool's classic wooden coaster arsenal), there was rarely anything to get excited about in terms of new rides.

While we paced the floorboards, over the other side of the pond, Americans were breaking world records like it was going out of fashion. Cedar Point in Ohio has long made a habit of breaking records, and in 1989 it was the first park to breach the 200ft height record with Magnum XL-200.

How we pined for such rides here on her majesty's shores here in old Blighty. As America left us for dust, we wondered whether we'd ever see such a record breaker here seeing that our tallest coaster then was Alton Towers' Thunder Looper.

In the UK, the parks that had the financial clout for such a front page roller coaster were confined by unforgiving planning restrictions, and as already one of the most compact parks in the world, it would have been easy to rule Blackpool Pleasure Beach out of the equation owing to the space available to them.

Somehow, tip-toeing around one of the most unforgiving and awkward construction sites in history, a deep blue mountain of steel slowly rose up from the Pleasure Beach, topped by a thread of red track using every opportunity to climb not only over Blackpool's historical rides, but in the case of the Big Dipper and Roller Coaster, through them.

Not only did the mile-long track have to tread carefully, but even the station had to adopt almost a cylindrical shape in order to fit above the park Monorail and the Pleasure Beach Express railway lines that run below this rotund building.

In 1994, amid much fanfare, the Pepsi Max Big One opened as the tallest, fastest and steepest roller coaster in the world.

Since 1994, the record for the tallest coaster has led the life of a nomad and a veritable globetrotter. As well as calling in on his friends at Cedar Point (Millennium Force and Top Thrill Dragster), he has also called in at Japan (Steel Dragon 2000) and also on a European level with Europa Park's Silver Star, which supersedes the Big One as Europe's tallest roller coaster.

It is well documented that roller coasters play an important part in ones psyche. Much of the thrill and apprehension associated with roller coasters is actually psychological. Bearing this in mind, as the ride edges itself into your line of sight as you approach Blackpool from 15 miles away, the sight alone is enough to drive you barmy.

By day, the inky blue structure reaches high into the sky above Blackpool alongside the 500ft tall Blackpool Tower, whilst by night it is hard not to fall in love with the beautiful sight of the ride lighting up the night sky, delivering initial impact like no other British coaster can muster.

Inside the park, the Big One completely envelopes the park, but forms an ever-present backdrop that easily blends into the background much like the sky. Every minute or so the ride reminds you of its presence as a train laden with people cartwheels through the sky, over your head before diving out of view. The Big One makes its presence known like no other.

Even considering the space restrictions, the layout of the station area is impeccable. The wooden barrel-like station has track wrapped around it in the form of the turn into a giant can of Pepsi (other soft drinks are available from the marketplace) with the lift hill disappearing skywards. The main finale is hardly candid, either, with the train exploding out of an underground tunnel into the final brake run.

Once you pass between the now-disused cylindrical cash kiosks, you climb a gradual ramp up to the station, squeeze through the turnstile into the station before you enter the first of three station-length switch back queues.

Whether accidental or deliberate, the way the first drop is framed in the window at the opposite end of the station is an absolutely sublime touch, with the inside of the wood panelled station whitewashed and lit brightly in white. At night, the station roof is trimmed with chaser lights which electrically dart from one end of the station roof to the other.

The platform isn't the largest in the world, and frankly isn't that accommodating to those who are picky about where they sit. With 200ft of height at its advantage, where you sit has great impact on the ride you'll have, but sadly you do not have the luxury of being too choosy.

The trains are good looking with a sharp nose, fronted by two headlights, liveried in silver with red, amber and blue stripes running the length of the train. Each train is five cars long, each seating three pairs of riders secured with an individual lap bar and seatbelt each.

The trains aren't the best upholstered in the world. The bucket seats are not the most forgiving once the ride curls down a near-vertical corkscrew towards the Irish Sea, and the lap bars mean that not much space is afforded for you to shuffle sideways into your seat. As time has taken its toll on the fibreglass shell of the train, the floor is patched up with lumps of plyboard which as well as looking fairly unpresentable, does not represent the most comfortable surface to place your feet on.

As a wailing claxon sounds, the train rolls from the station, dipping sharply down and into a 180-degree bend sweeping around the base of the station into the centre of the oversized fizzy pop can.

Straight away, the train smoothly engages on the lift hill before it begins its first of many triumphant skyward climbs. I must admit, I love this lift hill for a number of reasons. The fact that it is 200ft tall goes a long way to help, and the obvious tension built upon this fact in the train is – even ten years on – quite immense. Furtherance to this, the view whereever you look is amazing. To the right, the Pleasure Beach mapped out below you, to your left, the Irish Sea coastline stretching away into the distance.

As you pass a forest of weathervanes and aircraft warning beacons at the top of this towering structure, the track warps out of view as the train curls downwards affording an amazing - if brief view of the promenade below before the train is quite literally wrenched to the right, curling around a precarious curve whilst it dives towards the roofs of the buildings below. As you reseat yourself after this fairly brash drop, you're soon climbing up a strangely flat hill parallel to the promenade before you sharply top out, dropping back down and following the front parade of shops and restaurants before sweeping to the right and climbing into the ride's main turnaround.

The train suddenly, and unnervingly tilts sharply to the right as it runs over the Grand National station, the plaza in front of it and the arcade below.

As the train regains an upright stance, you head towards the track entering the turn around, just about squeezing beneath the track offering the first of many head choppers as you head into the return leg of the ride.

As you climb another triangular hill in the shadow of the first hill out of the first drop, you drop down towards the Log Flume lake, pitching to the left as you do before climbing back out into another hill which is still cast in the shadows of the first hill before the coaster takes on an almost serpentine nature, pitching first to the left as it drops, bottoming out by pulling to the right and ducking underneath the lift structure.

Another climb sends the train once again banking to the left as it tops out, before heading towards the structure of the Big Dipper and then climbing up towards the mid-course brake-run.

The front seat riders here will invariably get a healthy, although often painful bout of airtime as the train sharply straightens out for the brakes, and sadly the brakes make their unreserved presence known by taking a lot of the speed out of the train.

Then comes the helix which offers a strange sensation as the train slowly ambles around this undulating, banked track which runs over a scene from the Pleasure Beach Express before climbing up into another trademark triangular hill, dropping through the structure of the Roller Coaster before out of nowhere, the train curls into a sharp downward sweep, burrowing through a deep tunnel and then exploding out into daylight, heading skywards, careering out the way of the corner of the station roof just in time before the final brakes stop the train.

Even a decade on, the Big One is still regarded as one of the most famous and iconic roller coasters in Britain. It has featured on television, adverts and films, and still is a psychological challenge for the public to conquer.

How can a ride that has had such a lukewarm reception from enthusiasts exhibit so much staying power?

The ride is a one of a kind, not only nationally, but globally too. Say what you will about Arrow megacoasters and their triangular-topped hills and jerky transitions, but they offer a unique sensation, and one that is particularly befitting of the Pleasure Beach.

Furthermore, the setting of the Big One is absolutely note-perfect. There are few things with more mystique than a night time ride on the Big One, with the broody Irish Sea below, the promenade famously lit up with the Blackpool Illuminations and the Pleasure Beach twinkling away as if gold at the end of the rainbow.

Ride-wise, the Big One is remarkable in places, whilst a lost opportunity in others.

The first drop has become famous the world over thanks to a 200ft corkscrewing 65-degree dive downwards at speeds approaching 75mph. Within the first few seasons, the first drop was re-modelled by Allot and Lomax meaning that the drop was cantilevered away from the main structure meaning it was smoother, faster and tighter. Also, the second highlight of the ride, the turnaround, was improved by making the turn tighter which in turn added to the effect of hanging off the side of the structure.

Elsewhere on the first half of the ride, there is little to make your jaws drop, but nevertheless, the sensation of speed wherever you sit in the train is pretty much unequalled within the UK.

The mid-course brake run completely destroys any pacing that the ride has up until that point rendering the following helix as a pointless intrusion before from nowhere the ride wakes up for an absolutely superb finale.

Whilst the ride lacks airtime, is jerky and ferocious, it is a perfectly complementing ride to the rest of Blackpool's line-up. If airtime is what you want, Blackpool has one of the best selections of powerful gravity defying rides elsewhere, so it seems futile to compete against them.

Whilst many people grieve for the unfulfilled potential of the Big One when comparing it against rides like Expedition Ge-Force, it's continued popularity further enforces the fact that despite it being dethroned by peoples' access to bigger and better rides, it very much has the fizz it did ten years ago.

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:

  • Over a decade on, this ride is still iconic and one of the best-known coasters in the country
  • Whatever you think of it, the public love the Big One
  • Gives an amazing tour of the park ducking over and under existing rides and coasters
  • Great views of Pleasure Beach Blackpool all the way along the Golden Mile

Bad points:

  • Although not as rough as people make out, the Big One isn't the smoothest coaster ever
  • Aside the first drop and perhaps the finale, the Big One's pacing leaves much to be desired
  • The mid-course brakes almost stop the train

Labels: , ,

Tsunami, British Fairs
Friday, February 23, 2007

I feel sorry for the people who live next door to Alan Titchmarsh. Every week, they must go out with their Flymo and trim the lawn, only to peer over the fence and see that the grass is oh-so-greener on the other side. They probably come home from the garden centre on Sunday mornings with a new pot plant, only to find Alan has outdone them again by installing some gigantic marvel of modern horticulture. Much as they must want to hate him, they have to grudgingly admit that even his poorest efforts are still light years ahead of anything they’ll ever manage themselves. I feel a special empathy for their plight, for I am part of that long-suffering group, a fairground fan who just happens to be British.

What’s so wrong with being a British fairground fan, I hear you ask. Well, it can just be so demoralising. We’ve got some excellent rides touring our green and pleasant land, and every year, I’ll visit some of Britain’s biggest fairs, and have a fine old time. Once in a while, however, I’ll go over to Germany and come back awe-struck. Much as I try to convince myself otherwise, even a medium-sized German fair is insurmountably superior to anything you’ll find in Blighty. If you have not experienced it for yourself, it is difficult to explain the size of the gulf without making you think I’m exaggerating. As much as I hate to say so, comparing German fairs with British ones is like comparing the Olympic Games to a school sports day.

When it was announced that Scottish showmen M&D Taylor were to buy Tsunami, a Pinfari “Xpress” inverted coaster, it was undoubtedly a great moment for British fair fans. At last, we would have a decent sized coaster on the road. Sadly, two things peppered the good news. Firstly, the coaster wouldn’t actually do much travelling, as it would spend most of its time at M&D’s Theme Park in Scotland, and only appear at larger fairs, such as Nottingham or Hull (never both, as the dates are too close to allow it to be moved in time), and special events, like 2003’s Winter Wonderland at the Millennium Dome. Secondly, it was difficult to celebrate the news without feeling rather overshadowed by the fact that Germany has, for over two decades, boasted numerous coasters that were not only transportable, but world class in their own right. When you think of Dreier Looping, Thriller, Olympia Looping, Star World, Alpina Bahn, and particularly EuroStar, a Pinfari inverter suddenly seems pretty meagre in comparison.

Still, we want to show the showmen that it is worth touring coasters to in Britain, so let’s head down to that fairground. For a relatively small ride, Tsunami has a surprisingly striking presence. At night, the whole red and white structure is subtly floodlit, while the three trains manage to burn your retinas with their day-glo liveries (bright green, bright pink, and extremely bright yellow, respectively). To the average British fair-goer, this will no doubt be an impressive sight, and arouse enough curiosity to have them opening their wallets and heading to the paybox.

With that little transaction enacted, it’s time to climb up into the loading station and take your seat. Contrary to expectations, the seats are incredibly comfy, like plonking yourself into a lovely deep orthopaedic mattress. Given that this ride is from Pinfari, the company responsible (or should that be “irresponsible”?) for such horrors as Drayton Manor’s Klondike Mine and Brighton Pier’s Turbo, the amount of padding could be taken as a warning of horrific roughness. After all, a company like Pinfari, the “Happy Shopper” of coaster builders, would hardly provide padding if it weren’t needed, would they?

When the 10 –seater train is full (and only when it’s full – even if that takes all day), it’s time to depart the station and rumble to the lift hill. From the lift hill, you can peer down at the layout, which is very obviously “inspired” by the standard Vekoma inverted coasters (such as TraumaTizer or El Condor), commencing with a first drop that twists off to the right, before pulling into a butterfly-shaped double inversion. Where Pinfari’s design differs is that the butterfly is much more fluidly shaped than more sharply defined element, and has a sprawlingly distinctive look of its own.

Once at the summit, the first drop calls, and it’s time to brace yourself for the worst. Amazingly enough, the worst never comes, and the drop works surprisingly well. Charging through the ride’s structure, the butterfly inversion beckons, and again works very well indeed. In fact, it actually works better here than on the Vekoma rides. As the train exits the second half of the inversion, the track fluidly morphs itself into a tight helix, ploughing through the forest of support structure, and leading up to the mid course brakes. So far so good. Tsunami has been smooth, reasonably intense, and great fun. Maybe we’re going to have to scrap all those suspicions we’ve ever had of Pinfari rides. Ye Gods, a good Pinfari coaster? Are there no constants left in the world?

The brakes remove a little speed, but inject a huge dose of reality into the ride. What was a fun coaster suddenly becomes a dreary, uneventful, bore. After a slow turnaround over the station roof, the train plods into the shadow of the lift hill, and creeps around to the brake run, which is itself sharp, and angled downward, as if to make a last ditch attempt to exert a little G-force, albeit in a truly unpleasant manner.

The problem with Tsunami is that it is fairly plain to see that the designers concentrated so much on the first half of the ride that they then found they had left themselves no room in which to do anything remotely interesting with the remainder. Sure enough, what was a decent little ride becomes nothing more than an inverted monorail, making a dreary bee-line for the brakes, and rendering the ride stone dead in the process. I can’t even find myself able to say that the designers have failed in their attempts to end the ride on a high, as there is simply nothing here that even suggests that anyone tried to make it thrilling in the first place.

So, Tsunami is a good first half followed by a lousy second half. So, does that make it a good ride or a bad one? Well, it’s basic common sense that when you’re trying to keep people entertained, the ending is by far the most important thing to get right. Regardless of how good the beginning and middle are, the finale is the one thing that will really stick in your audience’s collective mind, and form the basis of their judgement. Not convinced? Well, if you go to see a movie and are bored rigid for the first 90 minutes, then enjoy a thrilling final 30, you will leave the cinema feeling content. Likewise, you can go to a fabulous two-hour concert, but if the last song isn’t a toe-tapper, you won’t be going home with a spring in your step. Like it or not, we humans have much shorter memories than we like to think we have.

This principle applies as much to coasters as anything else. Look at any truly great coaster, and there’s always a fittingly fabulous finale to leave your heart pounding as you leave your seat and begin the post-ride discussion with your friends. Want examples? Think of the final corkscrew of Nemesis; the sublime final in-line twist of Thorpe Park’s Colossus; or EuroStar’s devastating final helix. A good ending can even redeem a ride that has a dull first half – you need look no further than the Southport Cyclone for proof.

Tsunami’s ending, by contrast, is so feeble as to be almost embarrassing. As riders leave the train, the thoroughly respectable opening half no longer dominates the memory, but instead the commanding sentiment is one of sheer apathy. It’s certainly not likely that you’ll be scrambling for another fiver to slap on the pay desk, which is probably the biggest failing that a travelling coaster can have.

It wouldn’t be, if you’ll forgive the pun, fair to directly compare Tsunami with Germany’s spectacular travelling coasters, because Tsunami is designed to operate in the UK fairground culture, which is infinitely more restricted than Germany’s (of course, we could rant and rave about why the UK scene is so stifled, but that’s not a can of worms I’ll be opening here). What we can say, however, is that Tsunami should still provide a good ride. Much as I hate to say it, Pinfari has just not managed to pull it off. If I really want to say something more positive, so I will add it’s the best Pinfari coaster I have ridden, but that really is a case of damning with faint praise, given some of the God-awful rides that bear their name.

Riding Tsunami is like watching a rip-roaring murder mystery, in which the suspects are gathered for the explosive final scene, only for the detective to say he’s completely stumped, and he’s going home. As much as you want to be generous, and say that you enjoyed every second of it, you just can’t escape the feeling that something is badly missing. As a fairground fan, I’d dearly love to fly the flag for the ride, and to tell you that there’s a great coaster out there for anyone prepared to forsake the relative calm of the theme park and venture into the urban jungle of the fairground. Sadly, Tsunami is simply not that ride, and the best I can say is that I hope we can sit back in a couple of decades’ time and think “Tsunami? Ah yes, the ride that paved the way for later, greater, British travelling coasters”. Fingers crossed.

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:

  • A bold step for a UK showman
  • Much smoother than other Pinfari looping coasters
  • A good first half

Bad points:

  • Atrocious second half
  • Can also be expensive to ride
Relevant reading: Weather-related names
Maelstrom, Drayton Manor
Storm Force 10, Drayton Manor
Whirlwind, Camelot

Labels: ,

Revolution, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Friday, February 23, 2007

In an age where Britain is home to rides like Thorpe Park's 10-inversion Colossus, and where fairs are full of rides that perform endless loops and flips, it seems odd that once upon a time, the idea of an amusement park ride that turned riders upside down was something that warranted massive attention.

Back then, it is fair to say that Britain didn't have many decent coasters. Alton Towers was still trading more as a stately home than an amusement park, and the only major coasters were to be found at seaside parks. As ever, Pleasure Beach Blackpool was at the forefront of the industry, and was undergoing serious investment since 1976, the year which marked the death of its former MD, Leonard Thompson, and the ascension of his son Geoffrey to the role.

Geoffrey Thompson was, understandably, keen to make his own mark on the industry, and chose 1979 as the year to make his biggest impact yet. That year, PBB opened two new rides, showing a canny understanding of the fact that the park could progress without sacrificing its traditional feel. First was the Water Chute, based on the boat ride of the same name which operated at the park until 1932. Second was the Revolution, Britain's first modern looping coaster (as opposed to the lethal wooden loopers of the early 20th Century), and the first ride in the park's history to break the £1 million barrier. The park claimed it to be the first looping coaster in Europe, but Schwarzkopf actually pipped it by putting the Looping Star onto the German Fair circuit the year before.

The Revolution was the first steel coaster to be built at the park, and is still the only looping coaster there. Despite being an off-the-shelf coaster, the ride was an ideal choice for several reasons. Firstly, it occupies very little ground space, always an advantage at a park which, even then, was overcrowded. Secondly, it came from Arrow, a long standing partner of PBB, the Ohio firm having already created several smaller rides for the park, such as the Log Flume and Gold Mine. Finally, it was obvious that a loop would be a fabulous gimmick for attracting the crowds.

The design of the ride really couldn't be simpler. The 16 seat train starts on a raised platform, drops into a loop, then stops on a similar platform ready for the return journey. Unlike the more common Schwarzkopf shuttle loops (such as Alton Towers' much missed Thunder Looper), the Revolution gives riders a few seconds at the half way point to prepare for the return, and features a much tighter shaped loop than Schwarzkopf's huge near-circular design.

One thing which may strike onlookers is that it is tremendously overbuilt. The platforms are supported by huge latticework arches, under which the park has housed various attractions through the years, and which strongly resemble the structure later used by Arrow for the main turnaround of the Big One. The loop is covered with another huge latticework arch which goes over-the-top in every sense of the phrase. When the ride opened, you can imagine that the patriotic red-white-and-blue structure looked incredibly intimidating. At the time, the ride would have been clearly visible from the Promenade, and would have done the same job of attracting the crowds that the Big One does today.

Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, the park developed an obsession with advertising, which meant that the ride was repainted to a colour scheme decided by the ride's new sponsor, Irn-Bru. The track went from red to orange, the structure from white to blue, and the station was adorned with huge Irn Bru logos and banners. This actually makes the ride less prominent than before, which surely wasn't the intention.

If you want to ride the Revolution, you have to be prepared to work for it. The platform a long way up in the air, and the only way to reach it is via a long staircase which winds its way up from the non-descript entrance. Intended as a neat vertical queueline, PBB's general lack of long queues make the trek somewhat daunting. In its favour, the staircase does give lots of good chances to take photos of the surrounding rides.

55 feet above the ground, you find yourself with a short walk over to the station itself. This is taken across a narrow, highly exposed walkway which gives the distinct feeling of walking a tightrope. Just to make things more intimidating, the whole structure rocks and sways as the train enters and leaves the station. At this point I'd advise anyone scared of heights not to even attempt to ride the Revolution, as they will absolutely hate it up there.

Into the station itself, which continues the ride's skeletal look. All around is a framework archway which was presumably intended to form the basis of a roof, but which has been left uncovered. On quiet days, the staff will often insist on filling the train from the front, which is intensely frustrating, as the the back is by far the best place to ride. As you wait in one of the queue bays, look out for the novel method of propulsion, featuring a rather odd looking contraption, not dissimilar to tea tray on wheels, which sits behind the train and is attached to a pulley system. Watching this little device scuttle back and forth along the station track is great entertainment in itself!

Compared with more recent loopers like Colossus, the Revolution's Arrow trains give the distinct impression that you are sitting in a large crate. The seats are very deep, and have none of the wonderful exposed feeling we've started to take for granted. The overhead restraints are surprisingly pleasant. They are identical to those retro-fitted onto the Space Invader, but are much more comfortable in their natural habitat, although you can't help imagining how great it would be if the train were fitted with lap bars, as the Schwarzkopf shuttle loops are. It's worth adding that boarding is often chaotic, as the number of loading bays doesn't seem to match the number of seats!

Before the ride starts, we have a marvellous piece of comedy. Prior the sponsorship deal, the ride-op would play a dreary taped announcement beginning "You are about to experience the most thrilling and exciting ride of you life". Since the Irn-Bru deal, the announcement has been re-recorded to include the sponsor's name. Although the new recording begins with exactly the same phrase, it is now said in a voice which sets new records for sarcasm. It's obvious that whoever recorded the new announcement is trying to sound sincere, and the fact that he utterly fails just makes it even funnier.

So, with sixteen riders still sniggering at the underwhelming build-up, the turbo tea-tray jumps into action and rockets the train out of the station. Although the publicity machine says that the ride is all about the loop, I completely disagree. The highlight of the Revolution is, without doubt, the first drop. Regardless of where on the train you are, you will get airtime. No, you will get TONS of airtime. In fact, sit in a back seat, you will get what must rank as the most intense airtime you've ever known. Forget the Grand National, forget even Megafobia, no other coaster can offer the same feeling of being catapulted into orbit that these seats give.

From the drop, you are immediately bundled into the loop. Given the speed of the train, the loop is small. Unlike other shuttle loops, the shape of the Revolution's loop is what mathematicians call a "clothoid", which in English mean that the curvature of the track tightens considerably the higher up it gets. What it means for the riders is that lacks the high G forces of the Schwarkkopf's circular loops, but makes up for that by providing a strange weightless feeling in the stomach which would soon make any rider queasy after a few rides. Incidentally, if you are in the left hand side of the train, its always fun to keep looking left during the loop, and watch your view of the park spin around - just a tip!

As you rise back up and enter the second station, our caustic commentator welcomes us once more. "You are about to experience the Irn Bru Revolution 360 degree looping coaster... backwards", he informs us, his doomed attempt to make the word "backwards" sound intimidating invariably drawing a sarcastic "ooooh" from at least one merciless revolutionary.

Using exactly the same mechanics, the turbo tea-tray's twin brother engages the front of the train and pushes it back. Unfortunately, it's hard to escape the fact that the backward journey feels quite a bit slower than the forward one. The drop, for example, does not give anywhere near as much airtime as before. The backward loop, however, is a marvel, creating a sensation I've not known on any other coaster. It gives the same weightless feel as the forward trip, but is now much more intense, probably due the train being slower, and therefore spending longer in the loop. After climbing back to station level, the train trundles back to the platform.

Annoyingly, there is a turnstile in place to allow re-rides, yet this is never used. An excuse given in previous years was the difficulty of quick and secure cash handling, which was understandable, but no longer relevant now that the park operates its rides solely through the use of tickets and wristbands. This is extremely frustrating, given that the only other way to re-ride is to trek all the way down the exit staircase (wrapped around the entrance staircase), walk around to the entrance and climb all the way back up again. One very real possibility, however, is that repeat riding would make riders so queasy, that preventing them saves the staff the regular job of clearing up the mess!

Ironically, for a ride which was intended to be seen as the future of thrill rides, the Revolution has become almost as much a museum piece as the park's woodies. This isn't meant to sound unkind, but it is a relic from the very early days of looping coasters. Other than cosmetic changes brought on by the sponsorship deal, the ride remains unchanged, and can stand proud, with its antiquated arch over the loop and its original Arrow train, (still with the pedal operated restraint locking system), making the ride as much a part of coaster history as the Big Dipper or the Grand National. Compare this with its most obvious counterpart, Alton Towers' Corkscrew, an embarrassment of a ride, made worse by half-hearted attempts to disguise its age. In any other park, the Revolution might seem outdated, but as PBB is a working museum of the amusement park industry, it plays the important role of representing the dawn of the looping coaster in Europe.

For all the talk of its historical significance, the Revolution is still a great ride. Although a day at PBB inevitably revolves around the woodies, the Revolution is a ride that shouldn't be missed. Like the Wild Mouse, it is too intense to ride all day, but PBB has so many other rides that you wouldn't want to. As an occasional blast, you can't beat it.

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:

  • Very intense bouts of airtime at both ends of the ride
  • An intense inversion and the backwards section offers an interesting sensation
  • One of only a few similar coasters in the world

Bad points:

  • Trains are hardly refined
  • Not much of a launch
  • The stairs to the station make Revolution neigh-on impossible to re-ride

Labels: , ,

Megafobia, Oakwood
Friday, February 23, 2007

For UK coaster fans, 1994 was a great year. Blackpool Pleasure Beach opened The Big One; Alton Towers unveiled Nemesis; while Drayton Manor stood up to these industry giants by offering Shockwave. Of course, the arrival of these rides wasn't good news for everyone, and as these three battled for the limelight, the smaller parks were in danger of getting left behind.

One such park was Oakwood in Pembrokeshire. Virtually unheard of outside the local area, the park offered no major rides beyond a toboggan slide and a Zierer family coaster. Something needed to be done to put the park on the map, and with the big parks now offering the sort of rides that the great unwashed had only previously seen in holiday brochures, it was no longer enough to buy an off-the-shelf coaster and plonk it into the park. No, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you needed something unique.

The new coaster would need to act as a signature ride that would really get the punters flocking to the park’s gates. It would need to be good enough to satisfy thrill-seekers, but not too intimidating for visitors who weren't used to major rides. Above all, it would need to suit the park's relatively meagre budget, meaning that multi-million pound steel monsters were definitely off the agenda.

As far as coaster fans were concerned, the only down side of the 1994 trio was that they were all steel coasters, and that there was no sign that any new wooden rides were on the horizon. It was duly decided that this was the gap in the market that Oakwood should fill. Consultations began with John Wardley, the highly regarded designer whose profile had soared due to his work on Nemesis, and a plan was drawn up for a low-budget wooden coaster. An approach was then made to the now-defunct American firm Custom Coasters International (CCI), who added an unexpected twist to the tale.

CCI was keen to break into the European market, but wanted their first European ride to be an all-out showcase of their abilities. Obviously, Oakwood's modest design wasn't ideal from this point of view, and so an offer was made whereby the original design was scrapped, and CCI would instead design and build a much more ambitious ride for a reduced fee. The only condition would be that the park should then allow CCI to bring other potential European clients to ride it. With the contracts signed, notices went up at the park, officially announcing the new coaster to a disbelieving world. At a time when other parks were boasting of the massive amounts they'd spent on their new coasters, Oakwood had bagged the bargain of the century.

Among British coaster fans, Megafobia probably ranks as one of the most eagerly awaited rides of all time. The signs were certainly good, as CCI's recent rides in America were all getting rave reviews. All we could do was keep our fingers crossed and start checking our road atlases to find the best route to Pembrokeshire. Looking back, it really was a different era. Today, we almost take it for granted that every year will see at least one major new ride, and that we can follow every detail of their creation through the dozens of websites that compete to provide the latest news from the planning offices and construction sites.

When Oakwood finally opened its gates for the 1996 season, a new type of audience mingled among the crowds of locals. Suddenly, people were flocking to the park from all over Britain and beyond, desperately hoping that Megafobia would live up to expectations. It really is difficult to overstate the extent of the anticipation with which Megafobia was burdened. Only Alton Towers' Oblivion would ever match it for sheer fever-pitched expectancy.

That's enough nostalgia; let's get back to the present. Oakwood is a very different place these days. Rather than being the glorified playground of the pre-'Fobia era, the place now has the feel of a very healthy and respectable park. Major new rides like Vertigo and Hydro leave little room for doubt that Oakwood is now a serious force in the amusement industry. Further afield, both Britain and the rest of Europe have acquired a much greater arsenal of high-profile rides since 1996. How does Megafobia fare in the face of such increased competition?

The first thing that has to be said is that there can be few rides in the world that look as "at home" as Megafobia. Sitting on a hill at the side of the park, and perched elegantly on the shore of the boating lake, it could almost be a scene from a Constable landscape. Whereas rides like The Big One and Hydro revel in their imposing industrial presence, Megafobia's natural look blends in with the surroundings, and provides a perfect backdrop for this most picturesque of parks.

Walking through the giant "M" that marks the entrance, a path leads down the edge of a boating lake, directly in line with the first drop. From this angle, the drop looks deceptively huge, and is the only time the ride ever seems truly intimidating. The path gradually morphs from a viewing area to an actual queue, and as it ducks under the lift hill, it passes a dainty little rock garden, and embarks on a meandering zigzag through the greenery to the station.

The final part of the queue is undercover, which combines with the foliage to prevent spectators from having any idea how long the queue is. Not much of the ride is visible from the main queuing area, although you can see the odd flash of a train as it darts back and forth somewhere inside the vast expanse of wooden structure. After a few minutes, that same train will burst majestically out of the chaos and slam into the brake run almost overhead, allowing you ample opportunity to assess the riders’ reactions.

Maintaining the ride's very natural feel, a final wooden staircase leads to the all-wooden station and a roomy loading platform. As you stand behind an airgate, one of the ride's two 24-seat trains rumbles elegantly into position, and it's time to board. A comfortable, well-padded seat awaits, and restraints come in the form of a bright orange lap bar and seat belt. Unfortunately the seat belts seem to have been specifically designed to be as fiddly and awkward as possible, leaving everyone fumbling around as if they've got an embarrassing itch. Thankfully, this is the only problem the trains present, and soon you'll find yourself trundling off, lift-hill bound.

While climbing the lift, keep looking to the right and a glorious view will emerge of the ride's complex layout. For the uninitiated, imagine Spaghetti Junction combined with the London Underground map, and you'll be half way to understanding how tangled the track is. Nervous first time riders will no doubt be aghast to see just how long the ride is, as the majority of the track has remained invisible up to this point. Oh yes, and you’re not hallucinating, there really are sheep grazing underneath the ride – I’ll leave you to insert your own joke here.

At the top of the lift hill, the train passes a proudly displayed Welsh flag, and begins to gather speed as it turns toward the first drop. People often ask where they should sit to get the most out of a roller coaster, and Megafobia's first drop is a stark example of the difference between front and back seats. Ride the front, and you get an amazing visual sensation as you go from a glorious panoramic view of the park, to staring down at the tight gap where the drop squeezes itself under two other pieces of track. For riders nearer the back of the train, the "Please remain seated" signs become redundant, as a severe dose of airtime propels you out of the seat and into the lap bar for the duration of the drop.

Darting under the branches of a nearby tree, the train turns to the left and heads off into the fairly non-descript second hill. Rising again, a large sign warns us that the next drop is where the on-ride camera will take the ubiquitous holiday snap.

It's now time to get intimate with your co-rider, as we hit a left-hand turnaround, incorporating small a dip and rise, which sends riders flailing uncontrollably to the right hand side of the train. This may be quite an unusual element, but it works a treat, and I defy you to keep a straight face through this section without breaking into a huge beaming smile. Just when you're trying to recover from the turnaround, another drop produces the sharpest and most intense blast of airtime the ride has to offer, catapulting riders up out of their seat. This whole section flows beautifully, giving riders just enough time to recover, but not enough to relax. The fact that the drop looks so mild gives the whole thing a wonderful dramatic quality. Snap! What was that? You see, you had so much occupying your mind that you forgot about that camera, even though you were warned about it just 5 seconds ago!

Strangely, the section following the camera-drop fails to capitalise on what was a momentous high point. Once your mugshot has been consigned to the history books, a couple of fairly tame bunny hops follow, including a rise reminiscent of The Big One's infamously tedious straight climbs. Maybe this was intended as a chance to collect our breaths, but it really seems to go on a bit longer than it ought.

Bursting back to life, front seat riders are again propelled from the seat as they are launched into another high-speed turnaround, this time wrapping itself around the first drop. The backstretch of the ride looks quite mild, but is a truly joyous surprise, consisting of a couple of small bunny hops, taken with enough speed and urgency to really get the adrenaline flowing with some epic airtime. Another tight turnaround throws everyone to the left, and we are sent hurtling back into the depths of structure, where another surprise awaits.

We climb a small hill only to find that, just over the crest, a sharp left-hand kink is hidden away from us. Unprepared riders will have absolutely no idea that they are about to again get very well acquainted with their companion, as everyone is again thrown to the right of the train. This is a sublime touch, and can catch you out however much you might think you're prepared fir it. Again, not even the most sour-faced rider will be able to avoid breaking into a smile.

The final turnaround is a slight anticlimax, as the train loses huge amounts of speed. Fortunately, a slight dip allows it to regain most of its momentum as it begins to head back toward the station. We end with a nice flourish, as a curved hill lets the train blast dramatically out of the structure and fly into the brakes, carrying a surprising amount of speed. Although some might think this a waste of the trains remaining energy, the sheer force created by the sudden deceleration makes it is as much a “feature” of the ride as anything that went before. As the roar of the ride suddenly dies, it is time to reflect on what Europe's first major woodie in four decades has given us.

I have to say it - Megafobia is truly excellent. Compared to many modern steel coasters, Megafobia easily delivers a hundred times as much excitement and thrills. Not only that, it delivers on all levels and for all audiences. It is wild enough to satisfy even the fussiest of coaster fans, but not intense enough to dissuade the more timid visitor from taking a second ride, something that was particularly important in the early days, when the park had no other major attractions to fill their day.

On CCI's part, they really did deliver what they promised; a top-notch ride, packed with all the things that make a great wooden coaster. If you harboured any worries that it might be a one-trick pony, an airtime machine and nothing more, don't fret. You could sit down and make a list of everything that defines a classic woodie, and Megafobia will check them all off - airtime, lateral G, high speed bunny hops, dives into the ride's structure, a decent finale, and the odd little surprise dotted around the course? Yup, all present and correct.

Regardless of the technical details, the one thing that makes Megafobia special is that it is a ride with real character. With no theming, Megafobia just is what it is: A no-frills coaster from the old school, relying on sheer ride quality to win you over, rather than flashy short-term gimmicks. The "human" feel is helped, perhaps surprisingly, by the fact that riders are repeatedly thrown into each other in the turnarounds. In a way, it makes you realise how isolated you are on many steel coasters, when the whole point of visiting a park should be to enjoy yourself with your family and friends, and not to feel separated from them.

Most importantly of all, Megafobia is good honest fun, and lots of it. Just watch rider's faces as they head down the exit ramp, and you'll see that the vast majority will be wearing a big smile, regardless of age, gender, or any other division you can think of. Even the most terrified first time rider can return to the station beaming with joy - who knows, it may very well give them the confidence to go and try more intimidating rides elsewhere. In other words, besides giving thrill-seekers what they want, Megafobia is the kind of ride that turns people into roller coaster fans, rather than just preaching to the converted. At a time when no coaster can be built without it being some sort of record breaker or world's first, it often seems to be forgotten that its first job should be to give people what Megafobia does - happiness.

It is obvious that Oakwood is very proud of the ride, and rightly so. Nobody there seems to have forgotten the role Megafobia played in getting the park to where it is today. Whereas certain other parks let their coasters fall into disrepair, the maintenance of Megafobia simply cannot be faulted, and it rides as well today as it ever did, if not better. It makes such a wonderful change to find a park that seems to regard a coaster as something to be proud of, rather than a cash cow to be milked until it becomes unprofitable. Strangely, as an outsider, you even get the impression that the local visitors are proud of "their" ride, which is something you certainly don't get at many parks.

Special mention must go to the staff. Oakwood seems to have found the elusive secret to getting a really good workforce, and Megafobia is no exception to this trend. Maintaining a friendly atmosphere, the operators always do the safety announcements are done in person, rather than playing a recorded message, and apply common sense when it comes to the restraints, ensuring that everyone is securely held in place, but not crushed uncomfortably into the seat. Add to that to that an ability to run two trains with reasonable efficiency, and you have everything you could reasonably ask for from a ride crew.

Criticisms? Well, there is only one criticism of the ride itself, that the calmer sections do seem to ease off a little too much, particularly the run after the camera-drop, and the final turnaround. Although this is a shame, it may well be a deliberate concession to the fact that, for many visitors, this would be the first truly major coaster they'd ever ridden, and needed to avoid putting such people off re-riding. Nevertheless, they do interfere slightly with the flow of the ride.

There are a couple of annoying features regarding the queue system. Re-riding is a rather frustrating affair, as it takes an eternity to follow the twisting exit path, then go back to the entrance and walk through the whole meandering queue line again. This is no doubt a subtle attempt at encouraging us to pace ourselves a little, but for those of us who can't take a hint, the whole process seems a little excessive. More importantly, the queue itself is very well hidden, meaning the only way to find out how long it is is to join it. This may sound minor but if, for example, a family group visits the park, and the children go off to ride, the parents will have absolutely no idea whether to expect them back in five minutes or an hour, making it difficult for them to plan their time properly.

While we're in a nit-picking frenzy, "Megafobia" is not a good name, especially for such a pleasant ride. It would undoubtedly work well on a ride that relied on Nemesis-style intimidation, but Megafobia is far too nice and friendly to be lumbered with such an oppressive and threatening moniker. Before you say it, yes, I know it's a pretty feeble complaint, and the fact that I'm reduced to splitting hairs over something so insignificant as the name should serve as an indication of how little there is to criticise about the ride itself!

One peculiar characteristic of Megafobia is that it does take a while to wake up every day. Early morning riding tends to be relatively unspectacular, but the ride improves enormously throughout a day's running. Whether this should be interpreted as a criticism, I’m not sure. In a sense, this just adds to the organic feel of the ride, but it can come as a disappointment when you arrive at the park and find the ride nowhere near its best. Your patience will be rewarded, however, as it will get better each time you ride through the day. Obviously this means the best time to ride is last thing before closing, when it will provide a suitably spectacular climax to your day in the park.

The only other adult-sized woodies in Britain date back to the 1920s and 1930s and are still going strong. This begs the question of whether Megafobia can similarly survive the test of time. Well, the answer is undoubtedly yes. The design of the ride is timeless, and the park seems more than willing to keep the ride running in peak condition. There seems no reason whatsoever why Megafobia shouldn't join the ranks of the Blackpool's Grand National or Big Dipper, and keep on thrilling generations of our descendants for a very long time to come.

Megafobia is a classic coaster in every sense of the word. It is, I'm delighted to say, the absolute antithesis of some parks' irritating policy of building over-hyped coasters that seem to be designed to suit the preferences of the marketing team rather than the riders. Endlessly re-ridable, and an absolute joy both to ride and to watch, Megafobia is the perfect ride for a truly charming park. Quite simply, if you want a template for the perfect mid-size park, look no further than Oakwood; and if you want a template for the perfect crowd-pleasing coaster, look no further than Megafobia. In a world where the larger parks are prepared to spend 8-figure sums on rides that look outdated within five years, Oakwood have managed to find a way to spend relatively little and get a ride easily capable of squaring up to anything old father time cam throw at it.

It's a cliche, but it's true: Quality will out. Megafobia really is a high quality ride, and it's pleasing to see that the park's visitors seem to recognise this. Oakwood truly deserves all the success that has come its way since that day in 1996 when Megafobia opened, and the fact that the park has gone from strength to strength ever since leaves one obvious question: Why haven't any other parks followed Oakwood's lead?

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:

  • Excellent variety of drops and turns makes Megafobia an excellent all-round family coaster
  • Multiple airtime spots wherever you sit
  • Impeccable maintenance keeps the ride running as new

Bad points:

  • Takes a while to warm up every day, so be careful not to judge the ride on the basis of an early-morning ride
  • A few dead spots towards the end of the ride
Relevant reading: Wooden coasters
Big Dipper, Pleasure Beach Black...
Grand National, Pleasure Beach...
Roller Coaster, Pleasure Beach Bl...

Labels: , ,

Eurostar, German Fairs
Friday, February 23, 2007

No matter how hard you try, you simply can't prepare yourself for your first visit to a German fair. However high your expectations, I defy anyone not to spend their entire visit uttering the words "How can that thing travel?" every thirty seconds or so. Even when you should be used to it, there are some rides that retain this sense of mystique and wonder, and none more so than Eurostar. This epic tangle of dark purple track would be a jaw-dropping sight at any theme park, but the very idea that the whole thing is temporary simply catapults the ride over the edge of believability. As if that weren't enough, it also just happens to be one of the most frantic, intense, and exhilarating coasters you could ever wish to ride.

Debuting in 1995, just eighteen months after Alton Towers' Nemesis became Europe's first inverted coaster, Eurostar is a testament to the fierce rivalry that exists between German showmen. Indeed, the idea that anyone ever seriously thought about making a travelling inverter of this size is amazing, but to then make it a reality is quite simply mind-blowing.

Until Eurostar came along, Germany's tradition of large travelling coasters had stalled slightly. Anton Schwarzkopf, the mastermind behind the likes of Thriller and Dreier Looping, had fallen ill. His last major travelling coaster was 1989's Olympia Looping, while the only other major coaster to appear in this respite had been 1992's enclosed family ride, "Magic Mountain" (now "Star World"). Oscar Bruch, Germany's most famous showman, had been touring his two large coasters, Thriller and Alpina Bahn, for over ten years, and wanted to add something new to his line-up.

Meanwhile, B&M was setting the theme park world alight with their new inverted coasters, and so this seemed the obvious direction for Bruch to take. The trouble was that few people were willing or able to take on the massive task of a full-size travelling inverter. As a result, the project came to involve people and companies from all over the continent, an arrangement that provided the inspiration for the ride's eventual name.

Officially, the ride comes from Intamin, although much of the work was sub-contracted to Giovanola, a company that had worked with B&M and would later go on to build coasters under their own name. As for the design, this came from the then-relatively unknown Werner Stengel, who had worked extensively with Anton Schwarzkopf on previous travelling coasters. In addition, the Bruch family were also heavily involved with the design, both in terms of how they wanted it to ride, and how the massive structure could be made easier to transport.

It's worth pausing to think exactly what considerations needed to be made in designing this ride, as they go far beyond anything a theme park ride would need to worry about, and make it easier for us to appreciate what a huge accomplishment Eurostar is.

Firstly, the ride needed to be comparable to previous travelling coasters both in terms of ground space, and the time required to build and dismantle. As such, the ride used a similar "plug and socket" structure to the Schwarzkopf coasters. This allowed the ride to be pieced together with minimal fuss, allowing it to be booked onto as many fairs as possible each year, while minimising the need to hire local people to help build and dismantle the ride at each location.

Secondly, while the structure needed to be strong enough to cope with the enormous stresses involved, it needed to be slender enough to pack onto as few lorries as possible in order to reduce the transportation costs. It's no use having a world-class coaster if you have to charge people more to ride it than they're willing to pay.

Thirdly, anyone who has visited a busy German fair will know that the crowds can be colossal. Indeed, the top German fairs attract more people in their 1-2 two week run than most major theme parks get all year. As such, a major coaster needs to have an astronomically high capacity, as you obviously want to get as many people through the gate as the fair's opening hours allow. As such, Eurostar needed to match the ferocious capacity of Schwarzkopf's legendary crowd-crunchers, and is capable of running four 28-seat trains at peak times, forcing staff to maintain loading times far faster than most theme park coasters.

Fourthly, the ride simply needed to look good. Remember, the ride operates in a pay-per-ride environment, and needs all its elements to be clearly visible in order to entice spectators to the paybox. Again, you could have the greatest coaster on the planet, but if it doesn't grab the interest of passers-by and make them want to open their wallets for tickets, it will fail. Schwarzkopf's travelling coasters were a masterclass of "staging", with the lift hill and bigger drops at the back of the ride, and other major elements, such as inversions, perched in the foreground, and often right above the paybox for maximum visual impact.

Finally, and most obviously, it has to be a good ride. It doesn't take a genius to work out that you can at least double your revenue by offering a coaster that people will want to re-ride. If you get off the ride without having enjoyed it, that's one more ticket that will go unsold.

So there you have it. Versprung durch Technik. Would you fancy trying to design a coaster within these limitations? No, and neither did a lot of other people. It was immensely brave of Werner Stengel to accept the challenge, especially as he was not the legendary figure he is today. Indeed, Eurostar was arguably the first time that Stengel would be regarded as the "star" designer, rather than remaining an anonymous back-room boffin.

Despite opening late at its first few fairs, Bruch's battalion of staff soon managed to find ways of building the ride in less and less time, and using less and less trucks. Nowadays, the whole process goes with military precision, and the ride is always ready for business when the fair opens.

So, we find ourselves standing before the mountain of steel that is Eurostar. Certainly, the need to look good has been met. The ride is staged beautifully, with the twisted first drop in the background, the huge loop dominating the mid-ground, and a lightning fast in-line twist being performed above the paybox and queue. Keep watching, and you'll see the train plough through the twin corkscrews that form one of the ride's many high-speed, high-drama, high-G highlights. At night, the subtle floodlighting reflects beautifully on the structure, giving the ride a gloriously intimidating aura as the trains blur past in all directions.

At the paybox, a ticket is received for less money than you might reasonably expect, and it is time to join the fast-moving queue. As with many German fair rides, "queue" is not really the appropriate word, as it tends to move at close to walking pace, and so what might look like an hour's queue dissolves in minutes.

As you approach the station, prepare to be in awe of the staff. Usually, when we praise ride staff, it is for their friendliness, but here it is for the ferocious efficiency with which they operate the ride. Forget about politeness, if your group can fill those last few seats, prepare to be virtually grabbed by the neck and thrown into the train. For theme park devotees, this will be yet another indication of the fact that the German fairs are a whole new world, with an unprecedented sense of haste and urgency.

The trains themselves resemble stripped-down B&M cars, with none of the niceties that we associate with Walter and Claude's luxury vehicles. No seatbelts, no moving floors, just the bare minimum needed to hold you in your seat, and to keep the trains running like clockwork. Indeed, when you've ridden Eurostar, the B&M inverters suddenly seem needlessly complex.

At the sound of a hooter, the train charges away to the rear of the ride, where it engages the deafening lift hill. From here, we are thrown straight into an inverted equivalent of the famous Schwarzkopf twisting first drop, and into the vertical loop with all the speed and fury of a rampaging rhinoceros. Front seat riders will get the first of many scares, as pieces of structure fly past at a proximity that makes them half-expect the ride to trim their toenails for them.

No time to recover, as the train barges into an overbanked turn, ripping wildly to the left as it prepares to soar across the station roof and into the ferocious in-line twist. As with much of the ride, it may lack the grace of the B&M inverters, but what it lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in sheer aggression. No coaster, Nemesis included, makes you feel so puny in the face of a rampaging typhoon of a ride.

Tearing out of the inline twist, it's time to hit the first set of brakes. Now, it's conventional to bemoan the braking of coasters, but Eurostar is slightly different. While the brakes need to be there to allow the operation of so many trains, the fact that the train slows to a crawl actually serves as a well-earned breather, before hurtling back into the unadulterated mania of the ride. Indeed, if the train were allowed to charge on at full speed, it's doubtful that the riders would live to tell the tale.

The next section simply oozes quality. After a swift drop, the train curls straight into two consecutive corkscrews, both tighter than you would ever think possible at this speed. With its passengers thoroughly disorientated, the train finds itself needing to perform a turn that may well rank as the most intense piece of coaster track on Earth. If you are still conscious enough to know what is going on, this near-hairpin turn pulls enough G-force to send blood rushing straight to your feet, a sensation quite unlike anything other coasters can offer.

Into another brake run, and the train again slows to a crawl. With all the inversions over, is this the point where the ride calms down? Not a bit of it, for Eurostar has one last trick up its sleeve. Twisting to the right, the track drops into a helix. The speeds get higher and higher, and the turn gets tighter and tighter, and soon riders are feeling the kind of G-force make them fear that the fillings are going to be ripped from their teeth. After what seems like an eternity, the train is effortlessly spat into the final brakes, which accurately simulate the feeling of being smashed into a badly placed brick wall.

The organised chaos of the station throws you onto the exit platform, and down an exit path that continues the intimidation by sending trains roaring past at furious speeds. This primeval language of roars and screams can only translate to a challenge to re-ride.

Eurostar is devastatingly awesome. No ride can match it for maniacally grabbing riders by the throat and taking them to the limits of endurance. If you are looking for a passive, calming experience, look elsewhere; Eurostar caters for those of us who like a coaster to show no mercy, to seize us and challenge us to battle it out, to prove our mettle. Once you have ridden Eurostar, it is difficult not to snigger at the thought of Alton Towers advertising Nemesis as "The world's most intense roller coaster experience". Compared to Eurostar, Nemesis is about as intimidating as a newborn kitten.

There is, however, one accusation that many riders levy, and it one that that I intend to rebuke with every breath in my body. Ladies and gentlemen, Eurostar is not - I repeat NOT - too rough. Not by a long chalk. Let me explain:

Sure, it's not smooth in the B&M sense of the word, but that certainly isn't something that should be seen as negative. If anything, its undoubted brutality simply serves to emphasise the sense of incredible dominance the ride has over its pray. Even in the back seats, where the G-forces are enough to totally disorientate riders, the experience never crosses the line into discomfort. When you ride Eurostar, you simply have to do exactly that - RIDE it, in the way you would a bucking bronco. There really is no point in sitting impassively in your seat and expecting to glide through its impossibly tight corners, as you'll come off second best. Eurostar is fierce, ferocious, wild, untamed and menacing. As a rider, it demands that you are prepared to do battle, and for those who are, the effort is rewarded tenfold, as the ride will get the adrenalin pumping in a way that few other coasters can ever hope to match.

As someone who loves a ride that makes it clear who wears the trousers, I firmly believe Eurostar to be everything you could possibly want a coaster to be, and is one of the greatest rides you could ever hope to find. It has no airs or graces, it doesn't mollycoddle riders, it just does its job of terrorising hapless riders, and does it to perfection. It exudes a tangible aura of pure aggression, and never lets you forget that you are on its territory and have to play by its rules. Do that, and you'll soon realise that the real king of wild-and-furious inverted coasters does not reside in a Staffordshire crater, but is instead constantly prowling around the showgrounds of Germany. Long may it reign.

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:

  • Utterly ferocious
  • Some of the most intense elements ever built
  • Impeccable operation and capacity

Bad points:

  • Many find the ride too rough

Labels: , , , ,

Colorado Adventure, Phantasialand
Friday, February 23, 2007

Colorado Adventure is rather good.

Labels: , ,

Booster Bike, Toverland
Friday, February 23, 2007

At one point, I was quite a fan of Meat Loaf. I used to listen to his music and imagine myself barrelling down Route 66 on a mega-powerful motorbike, with the wind in my hair and not a care in the world.

I desperately wanted to emulate my idol, which helps to explain how the owners of our local chip shop could afford a four-storey retirement home in Monte Carlo.

Anyway, I never achieved my dream of being like the musical heavyweight, either in terms of singing (I had Van Gough's ear for music), or in terms of biking. For a start, I never got on with the leathers regardless of how much talcum powder I poured into them, and besides, I was always haunted by the memory of the time I fell off my BMX on my way home from the chippy.

Oh the shame of it, lying on the ground, my knees grazed, crying for my mummy as my blood mixed with the ketchup all over the pavement. Even now, I look back at that incident and can't help feeling that it was no way for a twenty-five year old to behave.

Even now, I carry that resentment of motorbikes with me. The way they speed past me every time I'm in a traffic jam, and yet still can't seem to deliver my order promptly when I call Dial-a-Pizza.

The last thing I want is for theme parks to start irresponsibly promoting the wretched machines to the world's youth, but that's exactly what Vekoma and Toverland have teamed up to do. I think the only rational explanation is that they're all out to get me.

Toverland has never registered on the theme park radar before, being more of an indoor play-place for the Netherlands' nippers. That's not to say it doesn't have its share of good rides, as it features probably the nuttiest Vekoma Roller Skater ever built, a fabulous Log Flume, and a superb bobsleigh ride. It was Booster Bike that really put the "park" on the map, being Vekoma's prototype attempt at a family-orientated launched coaster.

Booster Bike is literally set aside from Toverland's other rides, being the only all-outdoor ride, accessible only through a specific exit from the building. From here, the queue zigzags slightly before looping around the back of the station. The train is obviously themed as a convoy of motorbikes, which does little to explain why the station has a jungle theme, complete with "Day of the Triffids" style flora and fauna.

There's a perfectly a good reason for this, of course, although if I can work out what it is, then I'm a Dutchman. Maybe we should just be glad to have any theming at all, as the ride itself, unlike the rest of Toverland's other attractions, is devoid of theming, being simply plonked onto a completely flat piece of grass.

As you reach the platform, you finally come face to face with the ride's one and only train, which seats sixteen riders in rows of two, with each rider having an entire bike to themselves.

The appeal of motor biking, as I understand it, is the thrill of straddling a big powerful brute of a machine, which makes it all the more unusual that these bikes seem better suited for conveying Snow White's friends to work and back.

More importantly, there seems to be very little floor to the train, meaning that the only way of reaching the far bike is to clamber over the first one, which seems a trifle unnecessary. The restraint is activated by pulling the handlebars toward you, which in turn lowers a "back restraint", which pushes you into proper bike-riding position.

To a cacophony of engine noise, the train rumbles out of the station and onto the launch track. It's difficult to know what to expect, as the launch is hardly going to match the power of Intamin's rocket coasters, especially given the precarious riding position.

As it turns out, the launch is a pleasant surprise, more powerful than you would realistically expect, and before you know it, you're up and over the first straight hill, then banking to the right before a steep twisted climb to the left.

Unfortunately, this is where the ride's main problem manifests itself. This hill is so tall as to take all the speed out of the train, which destroys the sense of rocket-powered speed that a should distinguish a launched coaster from a normal one.

Whatever your thoughts on Alton Towers' Rita, it really does feel turbo-charged from beginning to end, whereas Booster Bike having come almost to a halt, reverts back to feeling like "just" any ordinary coaster. This is particularly true given that this is a ride that is meant to simulate a powerful motorbike, whereas if I had a bike that struggled to climb a hill like this, I'd be straight on the phone to the RAC.

Regaining speed, a swift helix sees the train head back toward the mutated undergrowth of the station. We know what the ride is meant to deliver, but does it pull it off? Well, yes, but as with Chessington's Dragon's Fury, it only works because it's at a park where it is clear that children are the priority. It will be interesting to see how future versions fare in more "grown-up" parks, as Booster Bike really is more of an afternoon trek than an all-out blast along the highway.

The main criticism of Booster Bike is that the whole bike theme adds very little to the ride, and it is hard to imagine that it really gains anything from the whole motorbike idea compared to a normal train.

Although not particularly uncomfortable, the fact that you are forced into a head-down position negates the expected novelty of balancing precariously on the car, a la Blackpool's Steeplechase. This never really takes effect, and it takes only a couple of rides before you begin to wish that you were sitting normally.

Ultimately, however, Booster Bike should appeal to the typical Toverland visitor, which is of course the most important thing. Whether the motorbike coaster is going to be the start of a new craze among theme park owners will probably depend more on how future incarnations develop the idea, as Booster Bike really does give the sense of a "safe" first attempt.

If you're wondering whether Toverland should feature on your trip itinerary, the answer is probably yes, although if I'm completely honest, that's mainly because of the tremendous log flume and bobsleigh rides, not for Booster Bike.

Good points:

  • Surprisingly good launch
  • Nice swoops and helices

Bad points:

  • Riding position adds little
  • Runs out of steam at mid point
  • Little/unfathomable theming

Labels: , ,

Big Dipper, Pleasure Beach Blackpool
Friday, February 23, 2007

I should declare immediately that the Big Dipper has always been a very special ride for me. It is one of the three rides responsible for starting my interest in coasters, along with the Grand National and Alton Towers' Pinfari Mini Apple. The world is a different place nowadays (the Mini Apple has gone, children don't respect their elders, pop music's not what it used to be, and worst of all Opal Fruits have become Starburst), but some things never change, and the Big Dipper is still among my favourite rides.

This ride has had a more turbulent history than probably any other, so let's go back to the beginning. The Big Dipper was built on the site of one of Blackpool's earliest rides, the Switchback Railway. This simple coaster was a common feature of seaside resorts in the first quarter of the 20th century, and Blackpool's version, owned by a family of Gypsies, was operating on the south shore even before Pleasure Beach Blackpool officially existed. As time went on, other operators arrived with newer rides, and competition grew fiercer, to the point where the Gypsies left the area, abandoning the Switchback. Eventually, W.G. Bean, founder of the "official" Pleasure Beach, decided to use the site for a bigger and better ride, and commissioned John A. Miller, one of the most influential coaster designers of the day, to design what would become the Big Dipper.

Miller's coaster opened on the 23rd of August 1923, but was a very different ride to the one operating today. The original Big Dipper had an "L" shaped layout, which turned left after the second drop and followed what was then the boundary of the park, roughly along the line where the Big One's lift now stands. From here it performed a large turnaround in the area now occupied by the Space Invader before returning to the station along the same route. Interestingly, the original layout included a double dip, something that would later become the trademark element of the Grand National.

The ride was an instant hit. Compared to anything the British audience had seen before, the Big Dipper was a revelation, featuring drops that were bigger and steeper than anything they'd seen before. This was because Miller, in conjunction with Harry Baker, had invented the first "upstop" wheels - a set of wheels fitted to run beneath the track and prevent the train from crashing to the ground at every opportunity. Bean had acquired the UK rights to the system, and the Big Dipper would become the first UK ride to use it. Nowadays, upstop wheels are found on 99.9% of the world's coasters, meaning that the Big Dipper has a valid claim to that now-overused title "next generation roller coaster". Unfortunately, like most rides to bear that description, the appeal of the ride did not last forever...

After Bean's death in 1929, the Pleasure Beach passed into the hands of his son-in-law, Leonard Thompson (father of current MD Geoffrey). Thompson embarked on a wide-ranging series of changes to lift the Pleasure Beach above the competition. Among them, Thompson made two unrelated changes to the park that would combine to make the Big Dipper's future look bleak. Firstly, he managed to buy a piece of land to the south of the Pleasure Beach, with the aim of expansion. Unfortunately, this would leave Big Dipper running straight through the middle of the park, restricting the possibilities for future development.

Secondly, Thompson commissioned an ex-employee of Miller's company, Charles Paige, to create another new coaster, the Grand National. This superb ride opened in 1935, exploring the potential of Miller's upstop wheels far more than the Big Dipper ever did, and is still regarded as one of the world's best coasters today. The Big Dipper simply wasn't up to the competition, and visitors voted with their feet in favour of the ferocity of Paige's masterpiece.

With the ride taking up valuable space and not taking enough money, Thompson could have been forgiven for demolishing the ride, especially as it had already lasted twice as long as most of Miller's American Big Dippers. To his credit, Thompson instead commissioned Paige to completely redesign the ride. Paige retained the idea of sticking to the perimeter of the park, and took the ride around into the new section of the park, where it now intertwines with the Steeplechase and part of The Big One. The new Big Dipper opened in 1936, just one year after the Grand National, and stood as a symbol of the changing of the guard at the Pleasure Beach, and of one of the main reasons for the park's continued popularity, the ability to introduce up-to-the-minute rides, while retaining a proud sense of history.

Although the ride is still generally talked of as a Miller creation to this day, it is fair to say that very little of the original Miller ride actually remains. While Paige redesigned everything that made the Big Dipper thrilling, architect Joseph Emberton worked on the aesthetic side of the ride, creating a whole new station in the modernist style that he was spreading around the park. Effectively, all that was left of the original ride was the track from the brakes to the top of the first drop. In a cruel twist of fate, this was exactly the section that was wrecked by fire in 1953, taking Emberton's station with it. The park once again set to work rebuilding, but Miller's original ride was now gone.

With the fire destroying the last physical remnant of the 1923 ride, one of the very few things left to remind us of Miller's involvement is the name itself. "Big Dipper" has become a generic name for roller coasters over the years, to the extent that PBB visitors often see the ride and comment on the "unoriginal" name. In fact, it was a very specific name for rides built by Miller and his company, presumably referring to the fact that his upstop wheel system allowed these rides to have much bigger drops than anything that had gone before. The fact that it has become a widely known phrase merely serves to demonstrate how famous and influential Miller's designs were.

The most recent thing to undergo radical alteration was the entrance. The ride's station had always been immediately beside Watson Road, the public road running straight through the Pleasure Beach. By the mid-1960s, the increasing amount of traffic meant that fears grew for visitors' safety. Unable to get the road closed, it was instead decided to build a large raised walkway to completely cover the road, into which a new entrance to the Big Dipper would need to be incorporated. The original station had a "wine glass" shaped structure separating the entrance and the top of the lift hill, which Emberton later changed to a cone-shaped "lighthouse" look. With the arrival of the overpass, the covering had to be removed, leaving us with the more imposing skeletal structure we see today.

Visitors approach the ride on the new overpass, and descend a set of stairs into the new entrance "plaza", a semi circular platform overlooking the loading station. From here, riders need to negotiate quite a long descent along a series of ramps until they finally get to the loading platform. Not that the ride is any worse for it, as it gives the whole place a wonderfully open, yet strangely cosy, feel. This is very refreshing compared to the sheds that constitute a lot of coasters' stations. To make the place more spectacular, the redesigned entrance plaza is centred on a quaint little fountain pool, while the actual loading platform is covered by a quite spectacular arched ceiling. As an amusing aside, the new entrance totally buries Watson Road means to the extent that many people don't even realise there's a public road there at all, and get quite a surprise when they sit waiting for the ride to start only to see cars and vans speed by in front of them!

Rarely do I feel so enthusiastic about a ride as when I am waiting for the front seat of the Dipper at night. As with many of PBB's rides, there's a real sense of timelessness as you stand on the platform waiting for the train to appear. Wherever you look, you see contrasts of the old and the new - look left and you might spot Ice Blast, look right and you'll see The Big One and possibly a glimpse of Spin Doctor. This clash of the old and the new all helps to give the ride, and the park in general, its unique character. As with several of the park's rides, the Big Dipper has such a fantastic sense of history about it that the sounds of the train clicking its way up the lift hill, and then roaring down the first drop, seems to echo with the ghosts of generations of long-dead thrill seekers laughing and screaming with delight. Of course, it's a shame that these sounds are punctuated by the bleep of the park's new barcode-reader-turnstiles, but I suppose some concessions to the modern day have to be made occasionally!

The buzzer will sound, and the train will appear in the distance bobbing along the last few drops. Finally, it leaps out of the last climb, stops to let off its passengers, and rumbles down to meet you. It's finally time to climb aboard and ride a sheer masterpiece of roller-coaster design.

After the lap bars have been checked, the train will depart, giving riders in the back seats of each car the distinct feeling that these huge carriages were never really designed to perform such tight turns. Into a dark tunnel lit only by the ancient "Do Not Stand Up" signs, onto a tiny lift hill, leading out on to a long turnaround, offering the chance to take in the view of The Big One and Spin Doctor and (if the wind is blowing in the right direction) get a face full of spray from the Log Flume. The idea of building up the tension of a ride by taking a long journey to the lift hill, is a very effective one, far more so than simply having a lift hill as soon as you leave the station. In fact, this idea seems to be slowly making a comeback, most notably with Thorpe Park's Nemesis Inferno, something I can only hope we see more of in the future.

Finally, we come to the main lift, which is directly above the smaller one, and makes the Big Dipper the only coaster in the UK to have two lift hills using the same chain. The lift gives a great opportunity to look around the park, and watch the other rides in action. From the turnaround at the top of the lift you get a great view of the entire park, along with the promenade and, in the distance, Blackpool Tower. By far the best time to appreciate this stunning view is either night-time or sun-set, preferably during Blackpool's famous illumination season.

If you're reading this review in the hope that I'll be able to tell what the big blue thing at the top of the lift is, well I can only apologise - it's been a mystery to me for my entire life. My best guess is that it is some sort of Olympic-style flame, in which case I can only keep my fingers crossed that the ride won't end up sponsored by British Gas. In fact, this is the latest in a long line of domes, cones, and spheres to grace the top of the lift hill over the years, all of them serving to provide the ride with an unmistakable symbol. Until 1993, these would be visible right down the promenade, acting as a beacon to draw riders into the park. Of course, The Big One has taken over that job, and renders the Big Dipper almost invisible from outside the park. Anyway, enjoy the scenery while you can, because this is where the ride gets down to business.

The first two drops are straight, and look deceptively ordinary to spectators. From the front seat, however, they look huge, and offer a great, smooth ride, topped off with a serving of airtime as you reach the next peak. If you prefer a wilder ride, the back seats offers incredible airtime as the car launches itself into each drop, throwing you into the lap bar in a way that is rough, but still great fun. The second hill has a large sign on the side declaring the ride's name, a sad reminder of the days when the Dipper was the ride that caught peoples' attentions they walked down the promenade. Well, the sign actually says "IG DIPPER", so feel free to make up your own jokes about that (I suggest something along the lines of where "Where can the B be?" for starters).

The third drop is now buried among the structure of The Big One's lift hill, hiding a superb left hand kink, which first time riders won't realise is there. Again, the back seat causes riders to rocket out of their seat, although they now also find themselves thrown to the right hand side of the car - Great fun!

With the big drops finished, the train launches itself over a majestic arch across the park's southern entrance, forming a nice parallel with the arch of The Big One. A small dip then takes you to another great twisting drop, and into a manic turnaround that has the side wheels screeching loudly for mercy. This section intertwines wonderfully with The Big One, as first The Big One dives through the Big Dipper's structure, then the Dipper charging back underneath The Big One. The turnaround is right next to The Big One's helix, meaning that riders sometimes wave to each other if the timing of the two rides is right.

As the Big Dipper parts company with The Big One, it immediately begins to intertwine with another Arrow coaster, the Steeplechase. After the turnaround, there's a small dip that just about leaves room for the Steeplechase's 3 tracks to travel over. Be prepared to duck if the Steeplechase's horse-shaped cars come by as you go through the dip! As if this area of the park wasn't congested enough, this whole tangle of coaster track is built directly above the park's (rather poor) Go-Kart track - No wonder PBB can claim to have the highest concentration of rides of any park in the world!

A right turn brings the track parallel with that of the "out-bound" section of the ride, and back towards the path that forms the park's south entrance. Whereas the first crossing manages to avoid this obstacle by gracefully leaping over it, the return journey sees a real stroke of genius. Just like the finale of the Grand National, riders find themselves hurtling toward a window separating the riders and onlookers, at the last second, the track is suddenly pulled from beneath them, and the train charges into a dark underground tunnel, again catching first timers by surprise, and providing one of the ride's many highlights. Some light banking takes you back under the Big One's lift and returns you to the path of Miller's Big Dipper. From here, a couple of small hills take us back to the station, each taken at a pace that keeps the fun of the ride going right to the end.

At the end of the ride, the train hits the brakes and comes to a smooth stop - well, usually. Occasionally the train overshoots, sometimes to the extent of giving riders a second lap of this classic ride. The exit is not as grand as the entrance, and seems to confuse a lot of first timers. When the Watson Road bridge was built, the ride's exit clearly didn't get quite the same amount of attention as the entrance, and as people walk out of the narrow exit corridor, they don't always realise that they have to walk around the back of the fountains and up the sole set of stairs that leads back to the entrance plaza. Often people get totally confused and end up accidentally wondering down the "hidden passageway" to the Roller Coaster on the other side of the park!

It seems that this is a ride that you need to let grow on you. I have often heard people get off the ride claiming that it was nothing particularly special, a view which puzzles me enormously. As you may have gathered, my enthusiasm for the ride knows no limit, but why do I rate it so highly? Well, the novelty of The Big One doesn't take very long to wear off, while the Grand National can go through occasional bad patches where the racing element is lost due to one train being faster than the other. The Big Dipper, on the other hand never fails to give a superb ride, and stays as fresh and as thrilling as ever no matter how many times you ride it. There aren't many coasters out there with such an outstanding record.

It's immediately obvious when you ride the Big Dipper that the preservation of the ride has been a real labour of love for the park. It is a vital piece of Pleasure Beach history, along with the Grand National, Flying Machine, and River Caves. When it comes to historic rides, PBB always seems to adopt the attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and has commendably refused to give in to the temptation to modernise the rides' look or feel. With the Big Dipper, the only concession to the modern day is the unfortunate arrival of advertising, both in the form of monitors in the station showing adverts for the park and its sponsors (which tend to be broken anyway), and the garish new livery on the trains, the result of the Duerr's company sponsoring a ride marathon in 2000 (no, I've never heard of Duerr's either). That said, old pictures of the Pleasure Beach show rides like the Dipper's predecessor, the Switchback Railway, totally covered in advertising boards, so maybe you could argue that it is not quite the 21st century curse it first appears.

In recent years, the ride has become famous for hosting a series of charity ride marathons. These include a series of 100 hour riding sessions for the park's centenary, and several successful attempts by American Richard Rodriguez to break the world coaster endurance record by riding almost 24 hours a day for weeks or even months at a time. Although these marathons are obviously publicity stunts for the park, they also demonstrate how well maintained the ride is in order to run non-stop for such long periods of time without falling to pieces or knocking riders black and blue.

Although the Grand National is capable of eclipsing the Big Dipper in terms of sheer thrills, the Dipper has so much more to offer than just a series of drops and blasts of airtime. The stunning station design, the old fashioned charm of the ride, the winding path to the lift hill, all these elements help to make the Big Dipper a truly sublime piece of coaster history. In all honesty, I don't really want to compare the Big Dipper and Grand National too much, as that would involve saying that one of these two magnificent rides was inferior to the other. What Charles Paige gave the Pleasure Beach is a pair of truly world class coasters that complement each other perfectly, and which still manage to outshine newer rides even after 70 years of operation. The fact that PBB have preserved these rides in such excellent condition for so many years must surely earn them the admiration of coaster enthusiasts everywhere. Either of these rides would blow the socks off the competition at any other park, so it seems futile to start comparing the two.

To put it simply, the Big Dipper is for me the finest ride at the finest amusement park there is, and long may it reign. It is the definitive "fun" ride, as opposed to "extreme" or "intense" ride, and is as close as I've ever come to finding the perfect roller coaster. The history, the elegant architecture, the comfortable trains, the thrilling drops, the build up to the ride, it's got everything you could possibly want from a roller coaster and more. In a way it is the exact opposite of The Big One - The Big Dipper is like a fine wine, getting better and better with age, whereas The Big One soon goes as flat as, well, Pepsi Max I suppose.

Blackpool is a showbiz town, and what is it they say in showbiz? Always end on a really lousy pun, so here goes: When you're in Blackpool, don't confine yourself to the more famous rides like Valhalla or The Big One, leave yourself plenty of time to ride and re-ride the Big Dipper - You won't regret it, it's a Paige right out of history.

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:

  • A ride steeped in a rich history, lovingly cared for by Pleasure Beach Blackpool
  • A logical step up from the Roller Coaster
  • Fantastic views en-route of the park due to its out and back layout
  • A beautiful station and entrance area

Bad points:

  • Some people may find the Big Dipper rough
  • Tendency for the park not to run the ride at full capacity

Labels: ,

Dragon, Legoland Windsor
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

With the popularity of Universal's Mummy coasters, it is easy to think that blurring the line of distinction between coaster and dark ride is a new thing. It does in fact date back as far as the late 1800's with the popularity of the Scenic Railway.

On such rides, dioramas would be built around the circuit of a figure-eight roller coaster, where a train - the speed of which was controlled by an on-board brakeman - would pass through these scenes giving the impression that people were travelling through rich and exotic lands.

As coasters became more exciting, the need for extra scenery to excite riders became somewhat redundant, and so this genre split with ghost trains and dark rides becoming ever-more popular, whilst roller coasters made use of new technology such as upstop wheels to create their own brand of excitement.

Coasters have since flirted with the idea of incorporating scenery into rides, but not ever to the level of the Scenic Railways. Rides like Space Mountain (Disneyland Paris) use sporadic set pieces, but have always remained more coaster than dark ride.

Revenge of the Mummy (Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood) have perhaps tipped the balance back in favour of the dark ride, using the coaster as your conveyance, but let's not forget Legoland's Dragon Coaster, half dark ride and half coaster.

Despite Legoland's apparent original insistence to the contrary, Legoland needed a coaster, and Windor's version followed two years after opening, and a year on from the similar, but far from identical model in the home of Lego, Billund (Denmark).

Denmark's version, like Windsor's, was half dark ride and half coaster, but unlike Legoland Windosor's used a Mack Blauer Enzian ride system, a completely powered 'coaster' much like Alton Towers' Runaway Mine Train. Legoland instead employed the British company WGH to supply a more traditional gravity coaster using tyre drives for the dark ride section.

By 1999, Dragon was joined by his younger sibling, Dragon's Apprentice, again from WGH offering a ride not dissimilar to a pint-sized Vekoma Roller Skater (such as Tami Tami at Universal's Port Aventura), which completed Castle Land, one of Legoland's largest and most spectacular areas.

Unsurprisingly, Castleland gleams its name from the castle the land is built around. The theming here is simply beyond the capabilities of what any British themer can conger up with a full sized castle complete with octagonal turrets and drawbridge set behind a tranquil moat in front, from which a Lego dragon rears his head.

Not even the most unrelenting nitpicker can find a tin warehouse underneath this castle with every rampart and every battlement intricately detailed down to the smallest touch.

Beyond the confounds of the port cullice, the detail continues. Sculpted from Lego, a statue of a fair maiden clasps a vase from which water cascades down into the fountain below, whilst two sleepy guards (also sculpted from the King's plaything of choice, Lego) guard the door to The Dragon, a small archway underneath one of the main turrets on the rear wall of the courtyard.

With Legoland's not-particularly-surprising bias towards modelling anything they can out of Lego, almost everything you see within the castle ramparts is created with a colourful palette of Lego blocks including characters, dragons and almost all the props too.

The queue starts off by passing an open book, bookmarked at a page asking "What secrets lie within?". Little touches like this will abound the long and winding queue line which first takes you up stairs inside one of the castle's turrets before wrapping around the courtyard on the castle ramparts.

As you pass through the turrets surrounding the castle entrance, you climb yet more steps up onto the highest stockades of the castle. Legoland's typical attention to detail abounds and keeps even the most fidgety kid engrossed with wizard's cloaks and hats hung out of reach and plucky knights above taking aim with their crossbows.

The station is a vault deep within the castle. The flaking ceiling is held aloft with timber joists, archways set within the walls with flickering lanterns lighting the room. From an archway to your left, a 28-seater fibreglass dragon will climb a slaloming brake run and enter the station.

The seven-car train is fashioned after a Lego dragon, with an angular rearing head at the front, red wings flanking the side of each of the bottle-green cars and a tail on the rear end of this plastic beast.

This dragon's belly has more than enough room to accommodate 28 people, with each row of two secured by a single lap bar. After a brief check of bars, the dragon slowly leaves the station through an archway, flashing and sparkling as if some timegate into another world.

You first enter the castle's cellar. With barrels set into the stone archways in the deepest recesses of the castle, you pass two mischievous monks stood around a barrel of beer. As one swigs at his tankard of beer, the other spits out 'beer' as a fine vapour all over the riders.

With a rich smell of food in the air, you continue your passage through this majestic castle. You slalom through the banqueting hall where the royal family are sat around a table feasting on a banquet. As molten wax from the candelabras drip onto the table below, the red-haired king takes a swig from a raised goblet as he talks to the queen opposite.

We pass more tableaux such as a wizard in his laboratory clutching a beaker of brightly coloured potion before our curiosity continues as we venture further into the castle, however, the festivities of the previous rooms are a distant memory as an enormous dragon has burst through the wall of the castle's basement and is standing guard over the king's nest-egg of gold, jewellery and crown jewels.

As the treasure glistens in the dim light, the plucky reptile breathes smoke, growls and generally looks displeased by our presence. Noting this, we continue past this agitated Lego lizard into a corridor, past the back end of the dragon and its flailing tail towards a knight which fades into view from behind a wall as you abruptly turn a corner, through an archway outside.

Our passage of escape takes us skywards up a tyre-driven lifthill before the front of our fibreglass stead pulls you into a spiralling helix towards the rugged grassland below.

Skimming through the long grass, the train buries itself into a trench, digging itself below terra firma sweeping through into another helix.

As our dragon gets out of breath, he is given a little push up a second brisk tyre-driven lift hill. As the ride prepares for its final throws, you plunge down a long, straight drop squeezing under overhead track before plunging beneath a courtyard into a dark tunnel.

After a brief sub-terrainain foray, bowing first to the right and then to the left, our plastic-fantastic dragon gets drawn into yet another ground-level helix spiralling anti-clockwise before ducking under the entering track, passing behind a large oak tree, climbing up to the right into a comically warped 'brake run' using booster tyres to slow the train down for its final climb back into the castle.

Whilst peoples' accounts of encounters with dragons are not well documented, historically dragons are not renowned for their good company and don't seem to have built up a good rapport with humans. But against the odds, this dragon is popular with young and old.

And fear not; this isn't a case of contenting the youngsters during the dark ride section and bowing to the demands of the thrillseeker throughout the coaster section - both halves of the ride strike a balance, with the dark ride section courting children's attention with bright colours and pure eye candy, whilst not forgetting adults inscribing the unmistakable Legoland signature in the form of their unmistakable sense of humour and attention to detail.

Considering WGH haven't chalked up a huge tally of coasters, Dragon is a fantastically smooth and often exciting coaster, which are hallmarks of an excellent all-round family coaster.

With two such distinct halves to the ride, it would be easy to end up with half of the ride wasted thanks to one half eclipsing the other. Fortunately, Dragon avoids such burden with each half of the ride confidently supporting the other – the dark ride is no inconvenient preamble, nor is the coaster cumbersome journey back to the station.

Independently, neither the coaster or dark ride are amazing, but together they are ingredients in a pretty tasty family ride.

That isn't to say it is without fault, though. The dark ride section is let down by the lack of music and dialogue throughout. In fact, your soundtrack will consist only of sound effects from the various tableaux and the squeaking of wheels underneath your train.

The characters really set out this attraction from many others; not only do they appeal to children thanks to their buoyant capers and cheeky grins, but to adults, too, thanks to the accomplishment of building detailed, full sized animatronic figures out of, yes, you guessed it, Lego.

The coaster section never really leaves the ground enough to be scary, nor does it have the impact of more established coasters, but never the less it provides an enjoyable ride.

Being a fairly sprawling ride for its size, there isn't much to look at on the coaster, nor is there the fun and interactivity of pathways, fields or buildings playing with your line of flight, other than the notable dive underneath the pathway off of the second lift.

Also, probably owing to the elevated station, there isn't much of a finale, with the explosive drop off the second lift never really being equalled as the train simply runs out of speed on its final approach to the station.

Independently, each half of the ride is good, not great, but together the whole attraction is a fun and exciting attraction for kids, and certainly inoffensive to parents and any teenagers. Both halves of the ride exhibit a certain amount of unrealised potential, however, which would have made the difference between a good ride and a great ride. But nevertheless kids tucked under the wing of this dragon will come off laughing.

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:

  • A fairly original idea to combine dark ride with coaster
  • The building and dark ride theming is amongst some of the best in the country
  • The coaster itself is smooth and exciting
  • The drop off the lift into the tunnel is a great moment
  • Lots of attention to detail throughout and Legoland's own brand of humour is prevalent

Bad points:

  • Dragon is a low capacity coaster meaning a slow-moving queue
  • The dark ride section needs more dialogue and/or music
  • The finale leaves much to be desired

Labels: , ,

Daemonen, Tivoli Gardens
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

There's always room in hell for a badly behaved person, just as there's always room in the mire of mediocrity for another run of the mill coaster. Daemonen goes to show that if you build it they will come; and if they come it doesn't necessarily mean that you've built a good coaster.

That said, Daemonen is definitely better than nothing, and certainly better than what came before it, Slangen, a Zierer coaster that was a living, breathing example of average personified.

It seems an unlikely undertaking to replace a tiny, non-descript family coaster with the notoriously lumbering steelwork of a B&M coaster, yet Tivoli Gardens have somehow managed the impossible and crammed a thrice-looping floorless coaster into what was a tight fit for even a small family coaster.

Daemonen is up there with the likes of The Big One and Nemesis in terms of coasters that are that shouldn't be - rides that are built in the face of adversity, using awkward situations to bring out the best in their respective designers.

A few manufacturers were invited to put a square block through a round hole in fitting the largest coaster in Denmark into an unfeasibly small plot of land with Intamin and Maurer Sohne both vying for Tivoli's money, but Tivoli Gardens eventually choosing the expertise of the notoriously prestige manufacturer, Bolliger and Mabillard.

Notorious not only for build quality, B&M have also earned a reputation for a softly-softly approach to ride design. While Intamin push the envelope so far that it drops off the edge never to be seen again, B&M get nervous sticking a stamp on it.

In a park bathed in maroon hues and trimmed with gold, a B&M somehow seemed the obvious choice for manufacturer. Classy, elegant and at the same time graceful, Daemonen's deep red track threads its way through the various lakeside pagodas that litter the back end of the park.

Daemonen is tiny. B&M have never been known for enormous coasters, but at just over 90-feet tall, it is their smallest coaster yet. Less Beelzebub, and more a little baby, it is hard to resist the temptation of grabbing Daemonen by the cheeks, craning your head towards it and speaking gibberish as you wave a rattle in his face.

A pint-sized coaster calls for pint-sized rolling stock, with Daemonen offering two six-car trains, at least two cars less than most similar coasters, yet still seating a decent 24 people per ride.

Daemonen's queue is little more than a staircase that climbs up between the ride's final brake-run and the track returning to the station. Recorded announcements in both Danish and English take the provision of not only taunting you with choice ride stats, but going through basic safety information, as well as reminding people how to unclip their seatbelts upon their return.

The station is uncharacteristically dull for Tivoli in the form of an open-sided building with a corrugated roof. The roof is gold, though, so it's classy as tin roofs go. I suppose.

Loading is supremely straightforward considering the ride has no floor. The golden train confidently enters the station, briefly slows to a nervous crawl before stopping, and a metal floor swoops from under the station platform, neatly flattening out underneath riders' suspended feet before the overhead restraints unlock.

Once seated, the process reverses, with the floor parting and receding like the Red Sea before the train is advanced onto a particularly steep lift hill.

Not a moment later, you're looking down on traffic, albeit from the moderate height of 92-feet, before peeling into a left-hand 180-degree bend, swooping suddenly to the right into an elevated carousel turn.

360-degrees later, the preamble ends as 48 dangling legs and accompanying torsos are pulled groundwards as the train drops 80-feet down a straight drop and into the first of three inversions; a vertical loop, briefly dipping below ground before swooping up through this moderately-sized loop.

Not wasting a second, the train drops out of this, and climbs immediately into an absolutely miniscule immelman, starting with a half-loop, swooping out to the side as it exits and curling around the front of the vertical loop at the front of the ride in a particularly serpentine fashion.

No time to regain your composure as the train fights against gravity, soaring skywards and elegantly rolling through an inline twist, probably the smallest camelback inline twist ever forged from steel.

Smooth and surprisingly forceful for Daemonen, you are pulled to the side, before exiting into a swooping turn that briefly follows the line of the lift, before breaking away into an anti-clockwise turn, swooping through a vague s-turn between a forest of supports.

The final turn dips and abruptly climbs onto the brakes, giving a few riders a neat little pop of airtime, before the train stops and makes its final advance into the station.

So is Daemonen heaven or hell? Well, truth be told; neither.

Excuse me as I reach for my thesaurus, but I need more synonyms for the word 'average'. Daemonen is nowhere near a bad ride, definitely not, but it hardly sets the world alight.

One of the biggest problems seems to now be a perennial one with B&M - it is utterly forceless.

Nemesis goes to show that you don't need to be battered black and blue to have a forceful ride, but B&M's aforementioned softly-softly approach is becoming softer and softer.

The argument of course is that for that people don't want to have blood rushing to the head/legs, then this makes a thrilling coaster more accessible, but by having a smooth and forceless ride, you remove any form of character and feeling of speed and aggression that should be associated with such a large ride.

This isn't to say there are absolutely no forces. The first drop is actually fairly decent, and the inline twist is good, even if not up to B&M's normal standards.

Elsewhere, though, there are plenty of elements that look to be a riot, but unfortunately are just a peaceful protest.

The vertical loop, for example, is terrible. This is the one area I thought the ride would deliver, offering a negative-to-positive-g contrast as it plunges from the straight drop into a small loop.

But in fact, the pacing is comparably pedestrian. No real hang time, but at the same time, no real bout of Gs, either at the top or bottom.

The immelman is equally disappointing. At the size of a croquet hoop and a suitably skewed looking exit, it had the potential really disorientate riders, but in actuality it feels so calculated and smooth that I can't understand how such a small element doesn't feel commanding in any way.

Daemonen also has bizarre pacing in the form of a slow start, three inversions back-to-back and then a slow ending.

The back seat seems to wake a few of the earlier and later turns up from their slumber - the swoop into the carousel turn is a good example, and the final slalom into the brakes at the end of the ride.

But despite this, the niggles remain. The beginning especially is disproportionately dull, and although this could be put down to showmanship, there really is no excuse for the fairly flat finale to follow the three inversions.

Riding Daemonen, you get the awkward feeling that the inversions were a must, even if it meant getting to and from them meant needless meandering. While the inversions are undoubtedly the ride's highlight, you cannot escape the uncomfortable feeling that everything before and after serves only to pad out and already short ride.

While we pick holes, it is important to remember just how much of a difference Daemonen has made to Tivoli Gardens. The coaster helped Tivoli achieve record attendance in 2004, and despite being, well, boring, seems to be a popular coaster nevertheless.

So, is it worth making any graven images or taking the lord's name in vain to afford yourself the opportunity to shake the hand of this Danish Demon? Absolutely not. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you need to live life as a pillar of virtue, as Daemonen is a fairly good coaster.

But, if you do love thy neighbour, at least you can carry on safe in the knowledge that there are far better compact roller coasters for you to enjoy without having to visit Copenhagen for Daemonen.

Good points:

  • A quality ride in a quality park
  • Nice and smooth, and not too terrifying
  • Interesting layout with original start

Bad points:

  • Slow beginning
  • Slow ending
  • Not particularly fast middle
  • Terribly forceless

Labels: , ,

Big Thunder Mountain, Disneyland Paris
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

With the best chef, the best ingredients and a meal that is likely to appeal to anybody with good taste, you would obviously have a recipe for success.

The same could be said of theme park rides. Cooking up a meal to be proud of are the so-called Imagineers, supplying the ingredients, one of the largest manufacturers in the world, Vekoma, and the already renowned feast they were to prepare for the opening of Disneyland Paris (then EuroDisney), was Big Thunder Mountain, a ride almost anybody who isn't under a rock can relate to.

Like all attractions at Disneyland Paris, modest changes were made to the method in which the ride was presented. The principle theme remains, but a few tweaks and modifications made sure this ride surpassed similar rides at the other Magic Kingdom parks the world over.

It is Frontierland that is home to the rustic wooden buildings with verandas and walkways of Thunder Mesa. These buildings and the pathways of Frontierland surround the lake in which the 200ft tall red-rock island home to the Thunder Mesa Mining Company, around which the huge paddle steamers orbit.

Often trains will curl around the many tri-coloured peaks of the mountain supported by the superficially rotting wooden track-work. Dilapidated buildings perch precariously on the rock, and towards the front every minute a train will dive into view, skimming the lake and disappearing briefly behind a splash of water before turning out of view once again.

The sharp bands of rock that make up the rugged landscape are interspersed by ramshackle buildings, wooden track-work and lush flora of the mountain, whilst in front the turquoise blue water of the lake contrasts well with the opulent red and brown rock of the land mass.

The entrance to Thunder Mountain is to the right of where you enter Thunder Mesa. Making use of the Fast Pass system that now operates on most major means that you can either effectively book a ride by taking a ticket and returning at the time quoted, or by joining the more traditional stand-by queue meaning you literally queue for the ride.

Initially the queue takes place outside in front of the station building. From a mineshaft to your left, every minute-or-so, a train will come thundering out from the darkness before heading around a corner back to the station.

As proof of the mine's hey-day, rusting mining machinery corrodes and dilapidated buildings rot. Attention to detail is remarkable, and you soon enter a large tin-roofed building in which the queue relentlessly zig-zags. Fortunately, by this point the queue has split in two so you will only walk half of the queues that confront you.

Once into the depths of the building you descend down a ramp into the station. The station is huge with the two queues going downward in tandem to the centre of the platforms. The two tracks into the station run parallel with the control booth directly in front.

Should you either wish to ride in the back or front of the ride, ask nicely and the staff are more often than not happy to hold you back for the next train. Once the preceding train is unloaded and the air-gates open, you are free to board the roomy train.

There is just one loose-fitting lap bar per bench, of which there are three per car adding up to a total of 30 riders per train - it's easy to cram a child in, too, so you can get a theoretical 45 in a train should there be enough children kicking around. As mine train cars go, these are perhaps the most comfortable you could ask for.

A red lantern hanging from the corrugated tin roof goes out and the train gradually begins to roll into the darkness. As the back of the train approaches the end of the platform, the pace gets more and more rapid before the train lurches into a pitch black tunnel swooping in the darkness to the right-hand side before a deafening clatter of anti-rollbacks drowns out the screams as the train comes to a halt on the first of three lift hills.

Bravo. The lift hill takes place deep inside the mine with stalactites hanging from above, and glistening pools of water created between stalagmites reaching towards the roof. Towards the top of the lift, arms outstretch into the waterfall that skims the right-hand ride of the train as you come out into daylight.

It was through the tunnel you crossed from the mainland station onto the island section of the attraction, a unique feature that no other Disney Thunder Mountain ride has.

As you curl over the top of the lift, you begin the coiling descent around the mountain. Smooth and fast helixes take you around the mountain, surrounding the many peaks and through the gorges created by the spectacular landscape.

A tight spiral takes you to the front of the mountain where you dive under a family of possums hanging from a dead branch above which spin as you race down towards a precarious bridge taking you over a stretch of water.

You dive down to this treacherous structure, buildings to the right perched on the red-rock mountain are a blur as the train lurches downwards appearing to skim the water. From the right, a splash of water will spray a dense mist into the air, often refreshingly hitting your face.

You turn sharply to the left before you clatter to a halt on the second lift. As you climb behind the tumbledown buildings you just stormed by, a goat heaves on drying clothes hanging on a line. The train curls over the top of the lift into the frantic section following featuring more tight helixes and even a reasonably straight drop.

As you approach a mine entrance the train passes a sign warning of the TNT in the next cave. As the train ascends the final lift, the rumble of dynamite loudens to a thunder as rocks move and threaten to fall as the train lurches to the side as it scrambles to the top of the lift.

Once at the top, you dive off into the inky darkness as you frantically make your escape back under the lake. The pitch black is broken by the eerie eyes of bats glowing, and as you get faster and faster, you turn harshly to the left before heaving back up into sunshine and hitting the final brake run.

Get your coat, El Diablo - this is how a mine train SHOULD be done.

In perfect measurements, it is almost impossible to get a more varied ride. There are some really fast sections taking place high up the mountain. Often, the track will bury its way into the mountainside offering some great visuals.

Both of the tunnels are long and house more than just straight track. The water splash doesn't add too much to the ride, but comical tongue-in-cheek aspects like the goat tugging at the clothes on the washing line and the possums spinning from the branch break up the chaos of the coaster.

It has obviously been accepted that lift-hills are dead boring. Therefore, the boredom is kept at bay by having beautiful pools of water below the first, the second the view (and that pesky goat...), and the third almost has half of Thunder Mesa showering down on you.

The idea of having the mountain completely independent to the rest of Frontierland is a great one and means that you are guaranteed at least two tunnels.

Whilst the ride wouldn't be dead boring without the mountain, it really would lose a lot through not having the great visuals, the little touches that make the ride so much better than the meagre copies that have spread throughout the world.

Thunder Mountain really highlights what rubbish we take for granted at theme parks. Supposed rival parks insist on copying what is now one of the most unoriginal themes and end up butchering the concept, watering it down and ending up with a weak family coaster where the theme rarely stretches further than a chimney on the lead car. Why bother if you are going to end up with an inferior product? Disney has shown us how a mine train SHOULD be done and at the end of the day, Big Thunder Mountain is in my opinion the best coaster in the park because of this.

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:

  • One of the best family coasters in the world which is exciting for children and adults alike
  • With lots of trains, a dual-loading station and the ability to squeeze three small people into a row, the capacity on Big Thunder Mountain is hard to beat
  • Some of the best theming you're ever likely to encounter on a coaster
  • Superb pacing and a fantastic finale

Bad points:

  • Big Thunder Mountain is a universally popular ride which means that it can get busy, and despite being fast moving, the queue is an utterly dreadful design
  • Not much of a spectator's ride with much of the ride hidden on the mountain itself

Labels: , ,

Batman: La Fuga, Parque Warner
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"No policeman's going to give the Batmobile a ticket."
"This money goes to building better roads. We all must do our part."

These are words of wisdom from the mouth of Batman, a superhero quite unlike any other. Batman has always been famous for his lack of super-powers and his inability to fly. He has made it fashionable to go to the scenes of crime in a Batmobile, lecture robin about the use of English ("good grammar is essential, Robin") and to use his quick wit and bare fists to fight crime.

The same can be said of La Fuga. Whilst other rides use new technology and gimmicks to their advantage, Batman: La Fuga uses a tried and tested layout on a tried and tested design and delivers as much, if not more that the less contemporary 21st century gimmick coasters.

We pick up the story at Arkham, the fortified home for the criminally insane. Crime scene tape is wrapped around the entrance arch as you go through a small garden outside the large asylum.

As soon as you walk through the doors of Arkham, you can feel that something is wrong. Arkham was home to some of Gotham City's most colourful crooks such as Catwoman, Riddler and Joker, all equally hell-bent on escaping - all equally sucessful.

Walking through the dank corridors of Arkham, this ‘home for the criminally insane' is clearly a prison with knobs on. Every corridor is patrolled by CCTV cameras, walls are grey breezeblocks and urine soaked cells hardly give the Hilton Hotel a run for their money.

An infestation of ivy follows crawls the length of the corridor, and graffiti with such unsettling comments like "So long, losers!" ring alarm bells that you duly ignore.

You pass the lockers with such tongue in cheek contents such as cattle prods and chain and balls before entering a social room. Chairs and tables are overturned on the floor, and a guard has been frozen to death behind his unfinished game of chequers.

The trains are shorter than standard with seven cars of four as opposed to eight. Many of B&M's smaller, more forceful rides of late are a car short much like Nemesis Inferno at Thorpe Park.

You take your seat in a normal B&M inverter train upholstered with dark blue seats and striking yellow restraints before bars are checked and the floor silently drops away as the train advances onto the short 100ft lift.

If swooping drops don't go to extremes, they are normally something I don't really care for. Batman's offers a nice sensation, not dissimilar to toothpase going down a plughole. It is a steep drop, but the banking is what makes it feel so special.

Without due hesitation, a tight climb sends you into a small vertical loop offering an absolutely impeccable mixture of forces and visuals even at the top.

If you were worried about your feet hitting the shrubbery below, the train tears away from the ground, cavorting towards the stained masonry and tiled roof of Arkham before rolling clockwise through an inline twist.

The inline twist goes to show that you can have a forceful element that pins your head to the side without going anywhere near the town of Rough.

Completing this remorseless hat-trick of inversions and perfectly complimenting the first, a vertical loop.

This string of three inversions represents one of the best starts to any coaster I've ridden. It isn't a one-trick first drop, but three well timed inversions which hit you unremittingly one after the other.

No rest for the peacekeeping superhero as the 28 riders are dragged kicking and screaming into a tight anti-clockwise helix. This spiral follows the line of the final turn into the brakes. As every support you pass gets closer and closer, instinct insists you pull your legs up, but the powerful G-forces never afford you this opportunity.

As the helix ends, you gracefully swoop around a 180-degree bend before dropping into an abrupt corkscrew, another perfect blend of forces, never compromising your comfort before a tight turn pulls you away from a pair of gargoyles and the wall of Arkham Asylum before you are forced down into a trench, sharply yanking your legs away from the concrete sides before you explode into a final corkscrew, finishing by making a final 180-degree turn onto the sharp brakes.

I'll start off with my complaints about Batman: It's quite a short ride.

Now that my complaints are out of the way, baton down the hatches Gotham City, as here comes a tidal wave - a veritable tsunami of praise. Actually, having ‘complained' about the length of the ride, the faultless pacing and merciless consistency of intensity is probably down to the undiluted length of Batman - a ride's intensity can become watered down by length.

Batman is a good ride because the start doesn't outshine the rest, and the beginning isn't just track leading into the spectacular finale. It is consistently fast, persistently intense and simply doesn't let up until the brakes say so.

Overlooking the intensity of the ride, there's no shortage of stand-out moments. Like Nemesis, it performs well to the spectator, and at one point shadows the pathway below (inline twist). Meanwhile, on the ride the structure plays an important roll in the illusion of foot-choppers, and going beyond what the original Batmen offer, the buildings are also used at least twice to fool you into thinking that you'll be going through one of the windows.

The theming is the icing on an utterly delicious cake. The ride never relies on the theme, but the theming fuses so well and really sets off the whole attraction. Never are you brainwashed by tedious pre-shows and videos that you miss when there is no queue. Everything is real, and makes what would be an otherwise uneventful walk into part of the attraction. Going against what seems to be an unwritten decree, the theme is also carried through right until the end, and isn't forgotten as soon as the train hits the brakes.

Batman: La Fuga is a true thoroughbred coaster. Many rides use advances in technology to their advantage, but Batman relies solely on a dynamic layout and tremendous pacing to thrill.

Looking at the layout alone, Batman is hard to beat, but the theming just prolongs the enjoyment of an already faultless coaster.

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:

  • A highly imaginative theme centred around the Arkham Asylum and a incredibly intense inverted coaster
  • Although a clone, it is unique to Europe and offers a well paced and punchy ride
  • The ride quality is easily of the same standard as Nemesis

Bad points:

  • Despite the excellent theming, the station theming is quite bland, and some of the area that the ride takes place in is also plain
  • Some might argue that it is too short. But they're wrong

Labels: , , ,

Air, Alton Towers
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Even before the fables of Icarus, man has had an aspiration to fly. Even today, over 100 years since the Wright Brothers flew the first powered aircraft, mankind have been trying to get closer and closer to the sensation of free flight, and coaster manufacturers have been quick to carry the gauntlet and take on the challenge themselves.

Flick through any park brochures from the last twenty-or-so years and you'll see parks trying to convince you that their newest coaster is the closest to flying yet; we've seen inverted coasters marketed in this way and even floorless looping coasters. But it was in 1997 that Fairpoint Engineering briefly debuted the World's first flying coaster at Granada Studios Manchester, Skytrak.

It was evident that in the late 90's, flying coasters were in their infancy. Even overlooking the low capacity, riders complained that the coaster was uncomfortable and so the ride closed and was subject to numerous alterations until it reopened briefly in 1998. Sadly, the problems continued, and Granada Studios chose to remove the doomed ride.

Meanwhile, rumours were a rife that Dutch manufacturer Vekoma were working on refining the idea of the flying coaster, and successfully debuted the second "World's first flying coaster" [cough], Stealth, at Paramount's Great America. On Stealth, riders would load sit in a 'conventional' train before the seats would tilt back before the train climbs to the top of a lift hill and performs a 180-degree mid-air roll, effortlessly manoeuvring riders into the prone flying position.

Whilst all this was going on, Alton Towers were touting Nemesis as a new and unique experience and wondering how they could ever better the angst-ridden Swiss monster. We'll find out eventually how they never could, but in the meantime the park frog-hopped Air with Oblivion before then working with the Swiss duo Bolliger and Mabillard to create Europe's first flying coaster, Air.

Following on from what appeared to be the disastrous own goal in terms of marketing, Oblivion, Alton Towers were fairly open in admitting that Air, a 'new generation flying coaster' would be opening in 2002.

Even before construction started, the internet fraternity offered comic relief in the form of idle speculation and pre-emptive criticism, before a rather hastily finished ride was unveiled to the public.

As workmen were painting fences and groundsmen laying turf, ride engineers were busy working on the rides' teething problems, of which there were many. If I had a pound for every time a ghostly female voice announced the now infamous words "Air is experiencing technical problems", I'd be typing this review from an island in the Caribbean.

The first glimpse you catch of Air is from the park Monorail from the car park, specifically the picket fence queue line which climbs over a hill almost to show itself off to incoming visitors on the Monorail. Whether deliberate or accidental, this is a strange choice of design.

In what many people have also criticised as being another design faux pas, the easy on the eye pastel green track interrupts the gritty and coarse atmosphere set by Nemesis. Hidden away, Nemesis is easy to forget about once in Air's vicinity, but it's easy to frown upon Air's slender mint-green curves reaching high over the rusty spirals of Nemesis.

It seems ironic that I have commented before on the complexity of Nemesis' theme, where-as Air opts for the opposite extremity overlaying the ride with a 'style' as opposed to a theme, composing principally of sweeping brushed aluminium curves contrasting with rocky sandstone outcrops.

Those unsure whether Air is for them will squirm at the thought of having to walk under the aerial acrobatics of the ride's opening sequence en-route to the entrance. It seems strange to think that a ride that should, by default, be more intimidating than Forbidden Valley's other B&M, is marketed as the logical step to take before you take on the mighty Nemesis. In fact, the onus falls completely on the chill-out musak (think French band, Air), pastel shades and soft roar of the train swooping through generally ground-hugging, sometimes sky-scraping track to reassure you that this is no Nemesis with a scary riding position.

Alton Towers seem too have neglected good queue design with the advent of Fast Pass. Air's queue is memorable, but rarely for any good reasons. The long and exposed queue climbs up and over a grassy hill before sloping down towards the semi-subterranean station. After two seasons, Air's reliability is still hardly something you can depend on, so expect ambiguous recorded announcements announcing that Air has broken down. Rinse and repeat until you get to the station.

The queue splits towards the end with the right side being far shorter than the left which actually bridges the track. A long front seat queue is available, but of course remember the only obstruction to your line of sight whilst on the ride is the view of the row in fronts' shoes in your peripheral vision. We recommend the back of the train.

Waiting behind the 'Air Gate', you become familiar with the effortless routine of loading the train. Sitting on the typically comfortable seat, a lapbar (supported in the same way as an overhead restraint) is pulled down. Underneath the two enlarged grab bars running the length of your chest is a tough rubber vest which will comfortably support your weight throughout the flight. When this is pulled down, small padded flaps will restrain your legs so that you can comfortably relax without having to hold on.

Waiting for the train to dispatch, you do feel strangely isolated due to the row in front completely blocking your view ahead. As such, the only indication prior to your departure is when a ghostly voice whispers 'Prepare for Air' as the station is bathed in a neon blue glow and the train scoops you into the horizontal position before the softly spoken whispers "Now fly" as the train smoothly leaves the station.

Now that you're 'flying', I'd say it's fairly important to at least make the sensation of flying worthwhile from the outset. Sadly, Alton Towers simply do not rise to the challenge. The tunnel that you slowly advance through to get to the lift is completely barren, and instead of continuing the style so far set by the ride, it instead offers puddles of oil, sand and grime for you to stare in wonderment at.

One of the advantages of B&M's flying coasters over Vekoma's is that you climb the lift hill face down. On Air, the ground dramatically drops away as you climb over the final turn of Nemesis giving a rather intimidating sensation of height.

The train curls over the top of the lift, dipping between a number of trees, sweeping through an upward 180-degree bend before swooping into a straight downwards drop. Only moments before your knuckles start scraping the lush green grass below, you pull away climbing up over the pathway below before rolling over onto your back. The ride becomes fairly intense as you drop headfirst on your back into a sweeping curve that encircles the whole entrance plaza.

Passing behind the entrance to the ride, you roll belly down again before dipping towards the ground below, squeezing under the pathway above, curling around into a clockwise helix which follows this same path before the ground again drops away and you roll into an inline twist past the station.

Unruffled from this, the train makes a beeline for the maintenance building, before you swoop first up, then groundwards before pitching to the side and coiling through a final helix, squeezing past several standing stones before smoothly stopping on the final brakes.

Air blows hot and cold. At moments, Air is inspirational - at others, it's just forgettable.

Let me start the synopsis by highlighting a problem, on its own small, but forming part and parcel of a larger problem at Alton Towers. From 1992, Tussauds were keen to flex their theming muscles adding areas like Katanga Canyon, X-Sector, Forbidden Valley and Land of Make Believe. Since then, established areas have been ruined by what appear to be creative whims that don't really work.

The style on its own probably won't leave visitors slack-jawed, but it works. But tagging on the end of Forbidden Valley, you can't help but think that the theme does make a mockery of the overly lavish, post-apocalyptic theme heaped onto Nemesis. To address those who will say that it isn't as if visitors will care, well yes, you're right, which is why it seems strange that so much time and effort was spent on Nemesis' theming, only to have Air intrude upon it eight years on.

The station shows what can be done with a little originality. The facade is modern, sharp and eye catching, although the name for the shop above, "Air Shop" hardly pushes the boundaries of originality.

Inside the station, small and creative touches abound. The whispering woman ("now fly...") and the blue lighting at least give the impression that someone with a bit of finesse has been behind the drawing board. The tunnel, however, quashes this reassurance. Whilst it's a bit much expecting a fly-through London Planetarium in terms of special effects, the fact that a well lit tunnel should sport less decor than a multi-story car park is disappointing at best.

The grass is greener at the other end of the lift hill. The first drop really sells the idea of the flying coaster to even the most staunch of sceptics, falling towards the ground, soaring back skywards at the very last minute.

Circumferencing the main entranceway to Air on your back is really misplaced on Air. Firstly, you're not flying and you're not flying for a fair while (it's a flying coaster, remember). And secondly, it is overly intense for a ride that is, well, wishy-washy. I've got no problem about the ride being fairly mundane - the ride is about flying, after all. But the stretch on your back does come across as being better suited to a hardcore thrill ride than the more passive thrills that Air offers.

Soon after, fortunately the ride finds its footing again, ducking beneath the pathway and following the contours of the ground up into a helix above the pathway. Alone, the helix only really serves the purpose to point the train in the right direction, but the height above the pathway below that you follow is an inspired touch, passing almost close enough to high-five passers-by.

The inline twist past the station is fun, smooth but not as effective as an inline when sat down, adequately fulfilling the role of a flyby past the gallery on the left side of the Air Shop.

Having regained much of it's lost dignity after the session on yer back, Air falls apart quicker than a cheap suit. Setting itself up for the grand finale, your 'aircraft' makes a beeline for the forest green tin roof of the maintenance building. Sadly, the architecture of this building most certainly won't have Sir Norman Foster looking over his shoulder. Now, my friends, not only does our 28-seat train go over this eyesore, but it infact elects to follow almost the entire length of this building.

Once we pull out from this dark cloud, we're coming into our final approach. The finale is excellent, consisting of a subtle bunnyhop into an anti-clockwise helix which really makes full use of the flying sensation before you pull into the brakes, slowly flying over one of the wonders of the world, "The Seven Stripes of Spit" where bored teens decide to leave their mark via the medium of flem.

Having acutely lambasted Air, I genuinely believe that Air is a pretty good ride ruined by a catalogue of problems, small and large.

Air is a novelty coaster. It's fun, unique, yada yada yada, but sooner or later that novelty will wear off and so it is up to the layout to hold your attention. Nemesis is most certainly up to the challenge, for example, using a powerful and unrelenting layout to blow your mind. Once you look through the thin veil of flying, Air really doesn't offer all that much. It's all very nice and everything, but will always play second fiddle to Nemesis and maybe even Oblivion which obviously doesn't bode too well for a new ride, and one of the parks' biggest coasters.

Another complaint, owing to the novelty value of Air is the reliability. It seems to have become an annoying habit of late that a coasters' novelty value should take precedence over substance. So long as it looks good on the front of a park leaflet, who cares about longevity or reliability? Well, the poor sods stuck in the queue, that's who. Whilst it's fair to say Air has grown out of the sustained periods of downtime when it first opened, the ride is still far, far too unreliable.

Air is well presented, coming across as chic, modern and contemporary. The ride has a sharp colour scheme and a near-consistent style, but it still comes across like John Travolta would have if he wore odd socks in Saturday Night Fever. This is to say, everything seems so polished and well presented apart from two notable clangers, both of which are noticeable to all but the blind; the tunnel on the approach to the lift not only is non-descript, but it's ugly too. And the maintenance warehouse is a spot on an otherwise pretty face.

Let's briefly digress and reflect why Air came to be. Alton Towers felt that there was a niche at the park that needed to be filled. Nemesis was the subject of exclamation and people were turned off by the proposition of being subjected to tight turns and unrelenting speed. Yeah, I pity them too.

And so Air was designed as - and I kid you not, an "emotional experience". An 'emotional experience'? Well: "People will look at this new ride and will want to do it" says Liz Greenwood from Magic HQ.

Whilst the ride Air delivers is most certainly befitting of this brief, Air most certainly barks louder than it bites. I'm sure that the Runaway Train, Black Hole and Corkscrew are (were?) for more suited to this role, all offering a better bark-to-bite ratio than Air.

In other words, even with pastel shades and chill-out music, Air has a lot of presence compared to the ride it delivers. I'd be surprised if people seriously look at the ride and think it is that far behind Nemesis in terms of thrills, but yes, it is.

In a way, Nemesis has set expectations for the parks' next coaster so high, it appears they're really tip-toeing around the subject of trying to outdo what is still - ten years on - the parks' main workhorse. Prudent indeed, but a ride that is as big as Nemesis, deliberately tamed down relying upon novelty value doesn't really do the trick now, let alone in ten years time.

Bolliger and Mabillard are often criticised for the 'samey' nature of their coasters, but Alton Towers have three B&M coasters now, each having an individual character. Air is not breathtaking, nor will it blow you away. Whilst it was never supposed to leave you breathless in the same way as Nemesis, everything that is good about it is all very pleasant, but everything that is bad just ebbs away at what could have been a wonderful ride.

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:

  • A good ride to start on if you're unsure about larger coasters
  • Very smooth and comfortable considering you're in the flying position

Bad points:

  • Patchy, often non-existent theming
  • Looks like it will deliver more than it does
  • The theme clashes with Nemesis

Labels: , ,