Coaster Kingdom

Top Scans, British Fairs
Monday, May 07, 2007

I just can't believe the Top Scan has been with us for an entire decade. It only seems like yesterday since we first heard rumblings of a new fairground ride from Mondial that, even then, seemed destined to take over the world.

Here in the UK, we did our familiar impressions of Oliver Twist, looking at all the fun the European fairgoers were having, never thinking that we could possibly have one of our own. Well, skip forward to the present, and not only do we have a Top Scan touring our showgrounds, we have two; Space Roller, owned by James Mellors Amusements; and Top Buzz 2, presented by Crow Amusements International.

Top ScanWhile Mondial has been responsible for a whole series of tremendous rides both before and since, it would be fair to say that the Top Scan is still the ride that defines the Dutch firm's reputation. A fast powerful ride, and very versatile, the Top Scan produces some of the greatest G-forces of any ride ever built.

The ride takes the diagonal main arm, previously seen on the Mondial Inferno, and adds a 6-spoked spinning star of seats, each row taking 5 passengers and able to flip freely throughout the ride. The speed and direction of the main arm and the star are both at the mercy of the operator, meaning that a lot of combinations of movement are possible.

Both Space Roller and Top Buzz 2 have quite colourful histories, so let's do a quick whistle-stop tour of how each came to be in the UK. Take a deep breath, as with both being on their fourth owners, the story isn't short, especially when we throw in the reason behind the numerical suffix buried away in the corner of the Top Buzz 2 logo.

Space Roller debuted in 1998, and was originally operated by the Kinzler family of Stuttgart. After a few years, the ride was sold to the Maier family of Switzerland. After a brief spell under French ownership, the ride came to the UK in 2006, courtesy of James Mellors Amusements, probably the most famous and highly regarded fairground operator in the UK.

Top ScanAlthough the ride was eight years old by the time it came into Mellors' ownership, it did not show. When the ride made its UK debut at the 2006 Leeds Valentine Fair, it looked as good as new. In this respect, the ride has been very fortunate, as the Kinzler, Maier, and Mellors families are widely regarded as being among the very best in their respective countries when it comes to ride presentation. Indeed, the various owners have added touches of glitz and glam that make Space Roller unique, such as the powerful 'Space Lights' that floodlight the platform and backflash, and the very eye-catching neon above and below the centre of the star of seats.

Top Buzz 2, on the other hand, has had a less privileged upbringing.

The story here begins with Nottinghamshire showman Elliott Hall, who debuted the original Top Buzz in 1998, again at the Leeds Valentine Fair. The ride was phenomenally popular, and made a huge impression everywhere it went, both in the UK and other parts of Europe.

In early 2002, Top Buzz was one of several European rides to go to China and appear at Billy Stevens' "World Carnival", where it enjoyed such success that Hall decided to keep it on the World Carnival tour for the rest of the year. To replace the ride at home, Hall found and bought "Extreme", an earlier model Top Scan that had been touring in Spain.

While Top Buzz had come to be known as one of the best-looking Top Scans in the world, the Spanish ride was anything but. However, Hall soon set to work, and over the next few years, the ride acquired new signage, which bestowed the name Top Buzz 2, a new backflash, new lighting, and a whole new platform.

Top ScanHowever, Hall's business interests eventually shifted towards the newly formed World Tourist Attractions, operators of the Ferris Wheels that have operated in several city centres around Europe, and so both Top Buzzes were eventually sold to other showmen. Top Buzz 1 went to World Carnival proprietor Billy Stevens, while Top Buzz 2 was sold to London showman Harry Ayers. Ayers briefly toured the ride, mainly around the south of England, before putting it into Margate's Dreamland until the end of 2005. It was during this period that the ride's appearance deteriorated somewhat.

For 2006, Top Buzz 2 was sold to the Yorkshire-based Crow family. Through its first year, the ride was gradually restored to its former glory, and by the end of the year, the ride looked sensational. As with Space Roller, Crow added unique touches, most notably two hugely powerful searchlights that sat at the rear of the platform and panned the sky with beams that were visible for great distances.

Top Buzz 2 (like Top Buzz 1) is the smaller model of the ride. The machine itself is unchanged, but the ride is equipped with a smaller platform, much narrower queue ramps, and a smaller backflash. Space Roller, as you'd expect from a German ride, is the full monty, with a much bigger platform and backflash, and much more room to accommodate the crowds. This does, however, mean more work, with the ride requiring one more lorry that Top Buzz 2, and far more work assembling the backflash, which it effectively a separate structure to the ride, compared with the ease of Top Buzz 2's backflash, which simply folds out from the ride structure.

Despite the machines themselves looking so similar, with the same colour schemes and patterns, comparing the two is difficult.

Top Scan

Space Roller can look bare should Mellors be unable to install the backflash

As you would expect, Space Roller looks magnificent when fully built up, and it should be stressed that Mellors' crew is to be applauded for always building the ride up fully wherever time and space allow. However, where this is not possible, the ride can look a little bare. Indeed, there have been fairs where the ride has been forced to appear without its backflash and walkways, with the result that it has been difficult to believe that this is the same machine that stops people in their tracks elsewhere. Top Buzz 2, however, having been designed more to suit such conditions, always looks at the top of its game.

Beauty is only skin-deep, however, and there's more to presenting a ride than mere looks.

In terms of sound, both rides are impressive, but Space Roller truly excels, and is possibly the best-sounding ride in the UK at the moment. This is mainly due to the efforts of its operators, none of whom are exactly shy to use the microphone to whip up some enthusiasm amongst the riders and spectators. With almost non-stop patter at most busy fairs, Space Roller is one of the most atmospheric rides around.

Neither ride is entirely free from the oft-lamented jingles, but their use is very limited compared to most rides. Special prize for effort goes to Top Buzz 2, however, which on its first direct head-to-head with Space Roller (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 2006), temporarily acquired a live DJ in order to steal a lead on the competition.

Top Scan

Top Buzz 2 can look tatty at times, but improvements in lighting certainly help

So, in terms of presentation, I'm going to give Space Roller a slight lead. At the top fairs, fully built up, the ride is unassailable, and by far the most impressive ride currently touring the UK. Sadly, however, it has to lose some of that lead by appearing quite bare on the occasions where a full build-up is impossible.

How about the ride itself? Well, both are true extreme rides, offering riders a taste of the kind of power and intensity that is a million miles from anything offered by Thorpe Park's Samurai. Catch them at the right time, and both rides will offer long rides at a reasonable price (usually around £2.50, though this can rise and fall depending on the crowds). Except at very busy periods, you can expect a ride on each to give you the full complement of forward and backward running, along with showpieces like the famous "windmill" sequence (in Space Roller's case, often set to various pieces of strangely appropriate music, such as the theme from Chariots of Fire).

Of course, I can't guarantee anything, as both rides are usually run on glorious manual mode, meaning that what you get depends largely on the operator's whim, but both rides have good people at the controls, all of whom know exactly what it takes to give a good ride.

It has to be said, however, that if you really want the most intense ride you can have, Top Buzz 2 is more likely to give you what you want. The ride feels that tiny bit faster, and the cars that tiny bit looser, meaning they flip that little bit more, and are more likely to show you what made the Top Scan the stuff of legends. Don't get the wrong idea, Space Roller can give phenomenally powerful rides, but Top Buzz 2 just seems that little bit more consistent in doing so.

So which is better? Well, despite my years of listening to Thorpe Park's safety announcements, I am going to sit on the fence.

Top ScanWhat I will say is that Space Roller and Top Buzz 2 are both rides of the very highest calibre. In a way, comparing the two, the most obvious thing to note is that whereas Space Roller brings a large dollop of German fair grandeur to the UK, Top Buzz 2 is an apt reminder of what the UK fairs do best. Top Buzz 2 is notably more, for want of a better word, "hardcore". Its appearance is more menacing, its music much harsher, and its whole aura is that little bit more "rough and ready" compared to the bright and breezy elegance and splendour of Space Roller.

If either of these two amazing machines come to your town, you'd be a fool to miss them. They really are among the very elite of Britain's ride line-up (that's theme parks included). Ride both, however, and you'll be surprised at how two such similar rides can be so subtly, and yet undeniably different. Nevertheless, both rides are wonderful in their own ways, and there's no way I'm going to pick a favourite. Both Mellors and Crow should be applauded to the rafters for presenting us with such top quality rides, and long may they continue to do so.

However, one thing is for certain. The UK's two travelling Top Scans are both leagues ahead of its two permanent ones.

Vive la difference!

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.

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Cobra, Paultons Park
Saturday, March 24, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good points:

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

Bad points:

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

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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

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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

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Drunken Barrels, Drayton Manor
Saturday, March 24, 2007

When Drayton Manor installed an Enterprise on the site of their old Cine 180 a few years back, it would be tempting to say that few people were whooping with delight. Ironically though, quite a lot of people were whooping with delight - and it was this cacophony of screams and shouts combined with the trademark Enterprise growl that spelt the end of Cyclone's brief period at the park, being not-so handily located a stones throw from a private residence.

Whilst this specimen of Huss' finest headed south destined to replace an ageing, erm, Enterprise, Drayton Manor had something of a dilemma on their hands. The shape of the plot really only suited a static spin ride of some description - and that is going to cause noise, no matter how much you tell the riders to shut up.

Still, where there's a will there's a way and the park turned to a distinctly continental way of doing things to address their problem: use a scaled down aircraft hanger. It offers numerous benefits as well as reducing noise, namely providing shelter during rain and allowing you the opportunity of trying your hand at some impressive theming.

For the ride itself, Drayton turned to Intamin and their 'Drunken Barrels' ride, another spin-off of the age old Teacups, but this time utilising themed kegs whirling around. And what finer country could the park showcase to suit the beer brewing theme better than Germany - where beer is often cheaper then water, and anyone who doesn't swig a bottle or two a day is thought to be severely de-hydrated.

Bringing ourselves bang up to date, walking up the hill of the park towards Apocalypse allows very little view of the brown metal hanger inside of which Drunken Barrels resides and the only real give away is a large yet strangely easily missable sign of two friendly beer kegs enjoying a chat outside the entrance.

Those wanting to peek inside the large open front of the building at the ride as a whole will have to try and escape two obstacles blocking their view, namely a large tree and an impressively buxom reproduction of a German girl serving up two vessels of finest export standing slap bang in the middle of the ride view.

Tempting your eyes away from her concrete jugs will reveal a ride platform most likely doing nothing for an awfully long time, and so the only real way to find out what this ride can offer is to enter via the left of the building and take a trip down Drunk and Disorderly Way yourself.

Following in the footsteps of G Force, the queue line is small but perfectly formed. It is all under cover which while being a huge benefit for days when the British weather is doing what it does best, does mean that at the slightest hint of rain the queue for the ride will suddenly find itself with its very own beer belly.

The queue also allows you absolutely no view of the ride itself, as you are tucked into a corner on the floor whilst the ride itself is a storey higher. If you are lucky, you may see the rides centrepiece wobbling around from the corner of your eye, otherwise you must make do with looking at the ceiling which is not as boring as it sounds.

It is only when you enter the building and wait in your queue-line cellar that you can appreciate quite what a detailed job the theming has accomplished. On the walls of the building hang flags representing beer brands from all corners of Germany and various kegs and barrels are set into the mock wooden walls, some sporting faces of various expressions from tipsy to down-right slaughtered.

Shelves and other decorative features adorn every recess of the brewery, though suitably everything looks just slightly manic - just as though you yourself had perhaps enjoyed a drop to drink before entering - and the accompanying German folk music really transports you out of Drayton Manor as we know it.

The building is all very well, but we still haven't seen an inch of the ride in action. As you hear the whirring stop, you can expect to board the ride soon. But not too soon. In what must be some of the slowest ride loading around, the single ride operator commences a brew of procedures that involves slowly walking around every individual car to open it's door to let people out, then opening the exit gate from the building. Once everyone has left, the gate is shut and locked before the operator slowly walks around every single car again to ensure that nothing and no one is left before sauntering to the entrance gate to let eager riders in.

To get to the ride platform we must negotiate a set of steps which guests frustrated with the waiting will stampede up and run onto the platform. Here, for the first time, we can see what we are up against. A large circular platform houses several discs of kegs, with a large green table in the centre that holds several more overflowing tankards.

Once you take your seats, no amount of trying will let you shut your car door yourself, so more time is spent as the operator does the rounds. Seatbelts are provided for the small, and everyone else has the rotating handle in the middle to hold on to allowing you to speed up or slow down your spinning to suit your tastes. There will be no pre-party drinks before the ride has started here though, as each keg is locked in place until the platform begins to rotate.

With no fanfare at all, we suddenly begin to move. As is traditional for these types of rides, everyone soon starts heaving their centre disc around trying to build up their momentum a bit, but disappointingly, our barrels don't seem as keen to move as their teacup cousins and you can only a tease a little extra speed out of the mug.

With the platform up to an average speed, it is so far so... well... normal. At this point though, the ride brings out the specialist ales and the whole spinning platform raises to an angle surprisingly swiftly. Pausing momentarily on its way up, it then continues to full height and those riders who are not completely engulfed in their attempts to spin the car will find themselves far nearer the ceiling then they would have expected.

The angle the ride operates at certainly seems severe from on the ride, but strangely it has very little effect on the kegs themselves, and those who are knocking it back with the handle may not even notice you have lifted at all. The ride does its best to make you notice though, with a bit of lowering to half height then up again for a bit of variety thrown into the mix, though all too soon you lower back to the ground and the spinning slows.

Again, no amount of trying to open the doors of your keg will release them, so you have ample time to wait for the operator as you try and figure out why you don't feel quite as exalted as you might have from another Teacups variation.

It seems that although all the pieces are there, you never quite get the wild lurch that similar rides give you. Everything seems so very smooth and controlled; as though you were at a cheese and wine party rather than a German beer festival. You may wish to experiment with sitting in bunches in the keg and try to use gravity while the platform is tilted to kick-spin your drunken antics, and you will have some success though this is not always possible.

That said, the ride has so much going for it. The themed building is frankly brilliant and combined with the accompanying music provides a unique and atmospheric take on a ride that could well just be a plain vanilla affair inside a metal building. In fact, once you are inside it is easy to forget you are at Drayton Manor as the distinctly continental theme and quirky building feel very much like Europa Park or Efteling affairs.

The exterior of the building also boasts that this is something different, and you would be hard pushed to see the tin shed underneath the facia. Even the ride platform itself sports wooden floorboards. Some of the more usual Drayton Manor-isms do poke their ugly head through from time to time though, such as the ridiculously slow loading procedure and fairly boring queue line.

The plus points for the theming and decoration are reason enough to ride really and there does seem to be a feeling that the ride cycle itself doesn't quite live up to its surroundings. Despite lifting up so high, the tilt doesn't affect the barrels very much at all, and the centre disc allows you to change the direction you are turning in and very little else. Without the music and themed building, it would all probably feel incredibly sterile and, in a way, the atmosphere lets the ride off the hook of a number of sins.

Your enthusiasm for Drunken Barrels will be heavily linked with how much you like the superb effort the park have put into the scenery that adorns the experience.

If you are going for a family ride that won't leave anyone feeling under the weather, you will come off pleased if not raving. If you are expecting a full blown drinking competition however, you may find the whole thing a bit of a drip.

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:

  • Admirable and impressive theming of the ride
  • The ambience is spot on with the theme
  • Enclosed indoors, this is a true all-weather ride
  • Variation in ride cycle

Bad points:

  • Not as speedy as other rides of its type
  • Slow loading procedure lengthens queues
  • Queue line is fairly dull and offers no views of the ride

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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

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[Archive] Chaos, British Fairs
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

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

As an intelligent and discerning reader, I assume you're perfectly familiar with chaos theory, but for the benefit of those who didn't pay attention at school, chaos theory simply states that, if the universe is infinite, and time is eternal, then there must be an infinite number of ways that ride manufacturers can make new variations on the old Huss Frisbee. KMG certainly subscribes to this philosophy, and having come up with the Afterburner, a floorless Frisbee using suspended seating, the Dutch firm now seems intent on making Afterburners of every different conceivable size.

The most famous Afterburner in the UK is Thorpe Park's Vortex, a 32-seat park model of the ride. Thorpe was not the first to bring an Afterburner to the UK however, as that honour went to Midland showman Willie Wilson, who first presented the mighty Chaos to the fairgoers of this green and pleasant land in 1999. However, comparing Vortex and Chaos is rather pointless, as for all their basic similarities, the two are totally different rides, for spectators and riders alike.

When you first come across Chaos, the first thing that grabs you is that this is one of the most lavishly presented rides in the UK, and possibly in all of Europe. Travelling rides are not exactly noted for subtlety, but even amid the hysteria of a major fair, Chaos has a remarkable presence and stature. With its gleaming white structure, and majestically dynamic swing that lifts the gondola well beyond vertical and up into the heavens, Chaos commands authority, and leaves you in no doubt that it means business. Better still, with an astonishing array of multicoloured lighting effects, strobes, and dry ice, the atmosphere around the ride is more like what you’d expect from the Ministry of Sound than an amusement ride. Make no mistake, whatever the competition, Chaos is more than capable of punching its weight.

Having bought a ticket, you are quickly ushered into the batching area, right in the heart of the action. As your lungs fill with a dense cloud of dry ice and your eyes adjust to the bombardment of lights, you are enlisted into a group of 24, and ushered to the gondola. Indeed, if the fair is busy, you may find that the ride has yet to completely stop, and that the previous riders are still stuck in their seats, waiting for the restraints to rise. It goes without saying that you are expected to get seated ASAP, and that faffing around will be met with a zero-tolerance manner. For a ride called Chaos, the loading seems remarkably well drilled and organised, and the gondola will be stationary for next to no time.

The warning horn sounds, and immediately the restraints close themselves, ready for the off. Anyone more used to Vortex will no doubt think they’ll have time for a breather as the floor lowers, but this too is instant, with the floor collapsing into a neat "V" shape, often with staff still standing on it as it goes. With a few choice words from the operator over the PA, a blast of dry ice, and a few deafening jingles, the ride powers into life, gaining height remarkably quickly.

As the swings get more and more powerful, the gondola begins to spin. To return to Vortex for a moment, the biggest single criticism levelled at Thorpe's ride is that the gondola always turns 180 degrees in precisely the time it takes to do a full swing, meaning that the same seats are always at the "top" of each swing, and making it dull for those always stuck at the bottom. Well, if that's what aggrieves you, then you will be delighted to hear that Chaos does not share this problem. In fact, at full speed, the gondola manages to do almost a full 180 degrees during the momentary pause at the top of each swing. This is impressive, to say the least, and means that the spinning alone creates a quite a considerable amount of G-force, which of course can be good news or bad, depending on your tastes.

Reaching full swing, the ride reveals a unique sensation. With G-force still pushing you into the seat, the swings go well beyond the vertical, and riders get the odd sensation of being whirled around high above the crowd, with gravity doing all it can to pull you up from the seat. This odd moment of serenity is in sharp contrast with the powerful blast past the platform, where strobe lights and speakers do all they can to send your senses into meltdown. The fact that there is so little of the ride's structure to block your view means much of your vision is taken up by an amazing blur of dazzling colour. Whatever else you may say about it, Chaos is one ride that does not do things by halves.

As the ride surges on mercilessly, the operators maintain the party atmosphere with the usual fairground tricks of urging you to scream, wave your arms and legs, and play endless jingles (a favourite being a blast of Queen's "We Will Rock You", which makes you regret not having a floor to stamp your feet upon). This is where the Afterburner excels over the myriad of other Frisbee clones. With all riders visible to each other, it generates a truly fantastic atmosphere among riders, and has few rivals in terms of generating a perfect blend of outright thrills and communal spirit. The fact that a ride on Chaos can last for quite a while means that there is a sense of "all being in it together", as we're asked to put our arms in the air if we want some more, and 48 hands duly reach out and grab a slice of sky.

Eventually, the ride comes to an end, and with little more than a sad sounding "oh no" jingle, it’s time to vacate your seat for another gang of pumped up punters. Staff again leave you in little doubt that you are to leave the area post-haste, and before you know it, you’re on the exit ramp while the high-flying frenzy resumes behind you.

Let’s not mince words here, Chaos is fantastic. Not only has KMG came up with the goods in creating the Afterburner in the first place, but the Wilson family have made it easily the finest example of its type you could ever hope to see. It looks gorgeous, sounds incredible, and offers a wild and truly thrilling ride. It certainly ranks alongside such heavyweights as Top Buzz and Move It 32 in terms of being one of the best rides touring the UK at the moment, and is arguably the finest ride on the road in terms of presentation.

There are, however, one or two minor negative points. As with many KMG rides, the restraints are far from ideal. KMG seems to work on the odd assumption that all human bodies are both slim and perfectly rectangular, which means that their restraints can be hard work on the shoulders, while larger riders will struggle to fit into them at all. Given that Chaos is a far more intense ride than any other member of the Frisbee fraternity, the restraints are quite restrictive, and the lack of comfort may make it more likely that usual that riders may feel queasy during the ride.

It is amazing to look at the variation between the many different rides that have been spawned by the Frisbee. Chaos, Vortex, and Drayton Manor’s Maelstrom all use the same basic principle, and are all excellent rides, yet ride very differently indeed. Which you’ll prefer is obviously down to personal preference, and if you favour relatively calm rides, Chaos is probably the one to avoid. If, however, you have a masochistic streak, and you are looking for a ride that grabs you by the throat and indulges in unabashed adrenaline-pumping mania, then Chaos is the undisputed king of the swingers.

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:

  • Well presented and well run ride
  • Excellent ride sensation with fast acceleration, spinning and high swings
  • Lots of atmosphere, mainly due to the seating arrangement

Bad points:

  • Not as much energy and atmosphere as it used to have
  • The spinning may be too intense for some riders

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