Coaster Kingdom

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Megafobia, Oakwood

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 cliché, 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?


JP 07 August 2002

Good points:

Excellent variety of drops and turns
Multiple airtime spots, wherever you sit
Impeccable maintenance keeps it running as new 

Bad points:

Couple of dead spots
Takes a while to warm up every day
Awful name!

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