The Long Story: A protracted and woeful tale of my battle with, and subsequent defeat of colon cancer. Full of gory details, wild emotional swings, and scars that will never heal. Uplifting and life affirming, while at the same time, heartbreaking and wrenching.
The Short Story: Every year I celebrate my Cancerversary by getting fucked up and riding rollercoasters.
Short version, right? Yeah, thought so.
Four days in September 2017. Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, California’s Great America, Six Flags Magic Mountain. Let’s go.
I had been to Knott’s recently in the scheme of things, a 2014 trip that also featured my first two proper days at the Disneyland Resort. I found Knott’s to be fantastic, a comfortable mix of old-school themed attraction and modern theme park sensibility, dropped down in the middle of a Southern California suburb. (Knott’s has roots as far back as 1920, starting as a roadside berry farm before adding a fried chicken restaurant, ghost town, and a county fair-like park.) Although in the opposite direction of the drive I needed to make today, Knott’s had three credits I still needed to get, along with the activation of my Cedar Fair 2018 Platinum Pass. Despite living in a state where the closest Cedar Fair park is four to five hours away, the pass makes sense for me considering I’ve got Cedar Point and Kings Island trips planned for next year. Plus, it’s an excuse to finally get out to places like Valleyfair and Worlds of Fun, parks that most normal folk have never even heard of.
After getting my pass activated at the gate (a friendly and smooth procedure that took maybe thirty seconds), I made a left to challenge Ghostrider, a Custom Coasters International wooden coaster opened in 1998. Last time I rode, I, along with most right-minded individuals, found Ghostrider to be a very jarring, shuddering, and unpleasant ride experience. Fortunately, Great Coasters International (the company behind such gems as Fun Spot’s White Lightning and Kings Island’s Mystic Timbers) came to the rescue with a 2015 refurbishment that had reportedly fixed almost everything wrong with the ride. I’m happy to report that that is exactly the case, and can officially say that Ghostrider no longer actively attempt to turn riders’ bones to powder. It is literally a different ride than before, one that can now take advantage of its layout and length (at over 4500 feet, it comes close to cracking the list of top ten longest wooden coasters), and features a nice mix of airtime and laterals. With a height of 118 feet and a top speed of 56mph, it’s forceful but extremely re-ridable, something I did more than a few times during my short visit.
As I delved deeper into the park (not a difficult task, as an early Friday morning in September seems to be a really good time to visit Knott’s without crowds), I came upon Sierra Sidewinder, a Mack spinning coaster that I had to bypass on my last visit. At first glance, it looked similar to the Gerstlauer Pandemonium spinning coasters that have sprouted up in half the Six Flags parks in the world, but with a train of four four-capacity spinning cars as opposed to individual ones. The Sidewinder layout seemed a bit more aggressive than their Pandemonium cousins, and featured a slightly higher drop and speed. Not bad at all, but nothing I’d be interested in repeating anytime soon.
Some parks just have those weird little rides, diversions that seem a little off or strange for some reason, be it construction, location, or theming. (Little Amerrika, a tiny homegrown park in the middle of Wisconsin, has a few of those, including a kiddie coaster that overlooks a local graveyard.) Knott’s weird little ride is the Zierer family steel coaster known as Jaguar.
What makes Jaguar so peculiar? First, riders traverse an indoor line themed as a Mayan temple (their designation, not mine), complete with dramatically lit wall paintings, enough stucco for a hundred 80’s Taco Bell restaurants, and piles upon piles of skulls. And once comfortably seated, the layout is kinda bonkers, with two lift hills, a run through an elevated temple section where a fire effect was removed long ago, a swoop through the loop of the adjacent Montezooma’s Revenge coaster, and a few straightaways that travel right over part of the midway. Jaguar isn’t overly fast or intense (only reaching a top speed of 35mph), but it is absolute joyful in the most bizarre way. The best way I can describe it is to imagine that Six Flags Great America’s Whizzer had a child out of wedlock with a small park monorail, and to avoid scandal, sent it off to live in California.
I was now officially done with everything I needed to ride at Knott’s, but had about an hour to play with before I absolutely had to get on the road to head north. Montezooma’s Revenge was down for maintenance, which was disappointing, as it’s the only remaining Schwarzkopf shuttle loop coaster left in the United States. (Chicago-area folk might remember the Tidal Wave, a nearly identical installation.) And so was Xcelerator, the park’s spectacular steel launch coaster, so no 82mph launch today. I decided to take a ride on Knott’s famous Calico Mine Ride, which I remember regarding highly on my last visit. First opened in 1960 and fully refurbished in 2014, the ride is a highly-themed journey into the tunnels of a “working” gold mine.
Waterfalls, lakes, caverns, and geysers are all dramatically lit, along with a cast of dozens of animatronic miners. The centerpiece of the whole trip is a sixty-five by ninety interior cavern which the slow speed train visits from several sides and elevations. I really enjoy the Calico Mine Ride; it’s long (nearly eight minutes), runs at high capacity, and is damn near Disney-level quality of theming. If I had two minor gripes (and of course, I do), one is that most of the miners’ faces look as if they’re trying to pass a kidney stone. The other is that although the attraction’s music sounds superb, the “down home” audio narration track can tend to be less so. Mind you, the story being presented isn’t the most intricate to begin with, so the narration isn’t crucial to the experience, but it would be nice to have a consistent level of quality. The one word that does come through pretty clear is “gloryhole”, though, and it’s said a lot. In the context of a family mine ride, it doesn’t mean anything vulgar, but come on, Knott’s…you’ve got to know some people are just giggling furiously every time it’s said.
I walked the park for a bit, rode Ghostrider a few more times, then decided it wise to begin my journey north. My destination this evening was Tracy, California, which was near San Jose and what looked like a pretty good midpoint between the two parks I would be visiting tomorrow. The trip was a straight shot up Interstate 5, and would take about six hours, not counting any time spent gassing up, pissing, or browsing oddly-flavored local brand potato chips. Stereotypical Los Angeles traffic erupted not a half mile down the highway, and didn’t really let up until I was almost out of the metro area. The urban sprawl slowly dropped away as I approached the Tehachapi Mountains, the unofficial defining line between Northern and Southern California, and I passed Six Flags Magic Mountain (where I would be back in two days) before beginning the serious climb into the range. Once over the Tejon Pass and down closer to sea level, the terrain got pretty flat, bordered in the distance by ranges that I wouldn’t be traversing this time. This was as far north as I’d ever been in California, and I’d seen many online describe this stretch to the San Jose area as “the most boringest thing in the history of ever”. Although it’s pretty level (along with some serious gaps between services), it’s far from the most boring stretch of highway I’d ever been on. Try driving east through Kansas, or, heaven forbid, anywhere in Oklahoma. That’s boring.
In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut wrote “In this world, you get what you pay for.”. Kurt must have also spent a few nights in the same hotel I did in Tracy. While booking the trip, I decided to take a chance on a slightly cheaper room in exchange for location convenience and the fulfillment of a future free night’s stay at one of the company’s nicer offerings. This would turn out to be an error on my part.
It was hardly the worst room I’d ever stayed in (that would be Locust Grove, Georgia in 1998, where I slept fully clothed with a gun on the pillow next to me), but it was definitely a Top Five. The lighting in the parking lot and on the outside of the building was bright and strong, but it all declined from there. Aside from the usual bad room issues like poorly-applied paint, dirty and worn carpeting, and suicide room lighting, this one had a few features I’d never seen. There was no swing bar on the security latch that usually floats around eye level on the room door, and it wasn’t just gone, it had been broken the fuck off. The dresser looked like someone had started to restore it when Gerald Ford was President, and just kinda forgot about it. The bedside lampshade had cracks-a-plenty. The bathroom lighting fixture only had one bulb, causing the whole apparatus to teeter to the side. There were unidentifiable stains on the surface of the bathtub, the towels felt like wool sweaters, and the electrical cord for the hair dryer was just barely long enough, allowing me to twang it like a guitar string. And that’s not even counting how disgusting the television remote probably was, those things NEVER get cleaned.
The surrounding area wasn’t going to win many prizes either, what with the constant interstate noise and an adjacent casino that was housed in a building that looked like it once held a Perkins Steak and Cake.
I had left the house at 3am Central time this morning, and it was now past 7pm Pacific time. I was way too tired to go searching for more pleasant accommodations, so it was Sisig for dinner (a Filipino dish made from “parts of pig’s head and liver, usually seasoned with calamansi and chili peppers”), then off to bed, turning to the right on the mattress to avoid the blinding light flooding in the window from outside from under just-too-short curtains.
I was out the door at 9am, hauling all my belongings to the rental car, where they’d be much safer in the trunk. My destination this morning was Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, the first of the two Six Flags parks of the trip, and the first of two parks for the day. I was a little surprised to see park-branded buses on the curving path to the parking lot, which made sense when I found out how far away it was from the entrance.
Most of the front of the park wrapped around the security check and admission turnstiles, allowing one to get a good look at most of the park’s major coasters. I was within the first hundred people in line, and aside from the usual hiccups in front of me in line (“Scan your right index finger…no, your index finger…no, you had the hand right the first time, use your right…no, your index finger…”), I was free into the open park several minutes after official opening.
The Joker, the Rocky Mountain Construction reprofiling of the park’s wooden coaster Roar, hadn’t cycled once yet this morning, so my first priority was the park’s pair of lower-capacity shuttle coasters. The closest (and most temperamental) was V2: Vertical Velocity, an Intamin Impulse nearly identical to the coaster of the same name at Six Flags Great America.
The main difference is that Discovery Kingdom didn’t originally bother adhering to local height restrictions, and was forced to move the 186-foot vertical twisted front tower down to a 45-degree angle to come in under the 150-foot limit (the back vertical tower needed no such adjustments). The result is a unique spin on a ride I had pretty much gotten used to; the first burst of acceleration sends the train into the middle of the twist, leaving most with some precarious hangtime, while the second forward burst throws the train completely through the twist and into a straight slanted section that gives the nice illusion of running out of track from the front row. I don’t know if the slanted tower is necessarily better in my opinion, but it certainly creates some forces not found on any other Impulse.
I had never seen a Premier Sky Rocket II coaster in person before, and the pictures of Superman: Ultimate Flight did nothing to prepare me for how insane this ride really looked. The other launched coaster in the park, S:UF shoots the train forward and backward at a max speed of 62mph, features a non-inverting loop, and a wickedly slow heartline roll 150 feet over the ground. The entire experience is fast, twisted, and very disorienting, with the heartline roll really being the only time it slows down. It’s a lot of punch in a very small footprint, and I’m surprised that more parks haven’t installed them. I was lucky enough to hit it early with very little wait, but with one train and a twelve-person train, I could see the waits for this getting pretty prohibitive as the day went on.
There was no activity on the Joker yet, so I weaved across to the other side of the park, swimming upstream against a horde of several youth church groups. The groups were similarly attired, most in bright neon t-shirts, with one cabal sporting shirts of a sunglasses-wearing Francis with the statement “The Pope Is Dope”. Huge tour groups usually don’t even cause a blip on my radar; they’re cumbersome, slow-moving, and when clad in eye-searing colors, easy to avoid. Next on the list was Kong, a Vekoma Suspended Looping Coaster, and a very odd first for me. Kong had originally been installed at Nashville’s Opryland, where I had ridden it in 1996, so this would be my first relocated coaster. (And yes, I do count it as a new credit. It’s a brand-new installation, different location and view, and technically a different ride experience. You count your coasters your way, I’ll count mine.) The SLCs are a tricky lot, I’ve had some good experiences on them (Thunderhawk at Michigan’s Adventure), and some downright lousy (T3 at Kentucky Kingdom, which I will never stop despising), and Kong kinda falls in the middle. The first half is devoid of any of the shaking and shuddering that usually plagues the model, but enough of that reared its ugly head in the second half of the layout. At least the restraints were passable, with none of the pneumatic press-like pressure exerted on the lower legs like T3, which I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned that I despise.
Walking past the park’s Larson Loop (which is NOT a coaster, Brian Strand), I made my way to Medusa, the park’s B&M Floorless coaster. I’ve enjoyed the floorless models I’d been on, with Kraken at Sea World Orlando cracking my top ten steel coasters. Medusa rides much the same; fast and fluid, with great inversions including a vertical loop, dive loop, and a cobra roll Sea Serpent roll, and that “B&M Roar” that can be heard all over the park. It’s also a capacity machine, I barely slowed down in line before walking right into an empty row. B&M Floorlesses rarely disappoint. After Medusa, as this trip was about little more than new coasters, I took a sorta-shameful ride on Cobra, a relatively unremarkable Zierer Tivoli family coaster. The highlight was the lift hill, where I was treated to a pleasant sight, the Joker finally cycling trains. Despite speedwalking and speeddodging back to the other side of the park, the line for Joker had grown substantially by the time I got there. But it didn’t matter, I needed my RMC fix.
I ended up a little conflicted about the Joker. On one hand, it’s an RMC, which would put it in the top tier of any park’s collection. It’s fast and smooth through elements and inversions, and with its one green rail-one purple rail track, the coaster is very visually striking. But I think my biggest problem with it is that it seemed to fail to surprise me. With the exception of roaring over the tops of airtime hills, the track layout is very visible in front of you, and there’s some longer stretches that allow maybe a little too much preparation. Maybe? It’s a bizarre complaint, I know, but everything I saw coming in front of me rode and felt almost exactly as I would have guessed. Or maybe I just need to stop watching so many fucking POV videos before a trip.
Ah, damnit. One coaster left, and it’s a Vekoma Boomerang named (wait for it) Boomerang. Due to its small footprint and smallish price, the model is one of the most popular coaster installations worldwide, and I’ve only ridden two of them so far. So many Boomerangs to go…so much time wasted on slow operations…so much mediocrity ahead of me. I’m being a little harsh; it’s true that they’ve got kind of a shit reputation, but the Boomerangs I’ve ridden have been just fine. They may lack the added zip of inverted trains, as on the Invertigo models (or the sheer terror of the vertical lift towers of the Giant Inverted variety), but it’s a simple thrill that the general public seems to like just fine. And that’s the bread and butter of parks, not guys like me, who knife around parks at a lightning pace, purchase no food, play no games, and later spend thousands of words being snarky about it in a trip report.
I knew I wasn’t really going to have time to experience any of the park’s live animal exhibits or shows (all of which I passed had looked well themed and presented), and I certainly had no intention of waiting in one of the many crowded food service lines. I headed back to the parking lot and made the hour and change drive south to Santa Clara, the area around California’s Great America, the second park of the day. A conveniently placed Red Robin allowed me to enjoy a tasty cheeseburger, steak fries, and more than a few double Scotchs on the rocks before I tackled the park.
Both the California and Illinois parks were known as Marriott’s Great America when they opened in 1976. The parks were pretty much identical in layout, rides, theming, and almost every offering; basically, one had mountains in the background of its pictures, and one did not. Six Flags bought the Illinois park in 1984, and the city of Santa Clara took control of the California version in 1985. In the years that followed, they slowly transformed into alternate reality versions of each other, as they began to add and modify rides and attractions, buildings, and even whole new lands. Six Flags continues to own the Illinois park, while Cedar Fair ended up with CGA. I’ve been going to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, IL since its opening year, holding a season pass pretty much most years since I was a senior in high school. I’ve done enthusiast backstage tours, and spent a glorious Fright Fest working as a scare actor. To say that my knowledge of the park is encyclopedic wouldn’t be too far off the mark, and it’s one of the places I know best in the world. I didn’t do a lot of research as to what CGA looked like, I wanted to force myself to experience maximum surprise.
Walking into California’s Great America fucked me up. (Technically, it started in the parking lot, where Levi’s Stadium loomed massively at one end, home of the San Francisco 49ers and the ill-advised Wrestlemania decision to have Undertaker face Bray Wyatt in the harsh daylight.)
The park still had their original 1976 ticket booths, and they look phenomenal, which proves that there was no real goddamned reason to tear them out at SFGAm. The booths were weird for me to see, but the first real sledgehammer to the brain came right through the gate. The Columbia Carousel was front and center at the end of its reflecting pool, but to its right, where I’ve been conditioned to expect the huge Pictorium building, was a Great Coasters International wooden coaster. There were palm trees. I even saw the goddamned Whirligig behind the carousel, not in Yankee Harbor where it belonged. And that was just into the entrance.
Deciding to mirror last year’s Fright Fest parade, I turned left into Orleans Place and began to explore the park, planning on doing a lap before I started riding anything. In parts, it felt like a fever dream. California removed its train loop years ago, so there were no railroad bridges, but the Delta Flyer sky ride continued to ferry passengers into the air, a sight not seen in Gurnee in over thirty years. Their Yankee Clipper flume ride was gone, as is the coaster that replaced it, but their Loggers Run is still going strong, painted blue.
A sprawling kids area signaled a pretty serious change in design as I got toward the back of the park, Yukon Territory and half of County Fair were almost unrecognizable to me. Things got a little more familiar heading toward Hometown Square (seeing the Demon clanking away on my left was comforting), but then got strange again when I realized that no train meant no train station, and the hill that once hosted the building is now level ground. Mind sufficiently blown, and still pretty tore up drunk, now it was time to ride.
In 1992, SFGAm received the world’s first inverted coaster in Batman, an innovation that would legitimately change the industry, and B&M followed up the next year with Flight Deck at CGA. Looking back, it’s surprising that it wasn’t a simple clone, similar to the dozen or so that would spread throughout the world in ensuing years. On paper, Flight Deck looked like it had a lot going for it, a custom layout not seen anywhere since, and it was an early B&M, when the company wasn’t hesitant about playing with forces on everything it built. I’m happy to report that Flight Deck is pretty fucking good, with great speed and forces, and a hard turn just after the first loop that legitimately had me feeling the first signs of greying out, something that hasn’t happened in a long time. Plus, it’s an inverted coaster with a totally outdoor station, and that’s just strange.
But on the flip side, wow…does Grizzly suck. Everything was just off with this 1996 wooden coaster, from the weird little infield that leads to the queue, to the deep seated, almost cartoonish looking trains. I think, and I stress think, that it might have even had some form of buzz bar (a single rail restraint for both seats in a row). I really should have had time to pay attention to details like that, because my walk-on ride featured a six minute or so dispatch from the station, for reasons I’m unclear about to this day. When it actually starts to roll, Grizzly somehow gets worse, alternating between jackhammering and long, slow, turns, either hurting you or boring you. Some of the straightaways feature an odd amount of banking, as if the designers realized that they created a layout that didn’t know what the fuck it wanted to do, and decided to give it weird laterals to try to make up for it. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it was retracked as recently as three years ago, I can barely imagine how uncomfortable it would have been otherwise.
I was unabashedly excited for the Demon; the SFGAm version was my very first coaster, and I’ve probably logged more laps on it than any other ride. A lot of it appeared to be the same to me, there’s the queue that goes under the rock-encased lift hill, the same grassed off area that used to be switchbacks back when the ride had 2 to 3-hour waits, same station house. The trains are similar, but these still had the three-dimensional logo on the front car, something I greatly miss back home. It’s only when you go down the first drop do you realize the first major difference; Gurnee’s first drop is a gut-raising affair, especially in the back of the train, while the California version is just…a drop. A way to build speed into the rest of the course. That’s it. There’s a definite difference in the profiling of that drop, and I don’t know how long it’s been like that, but I feel bad for California Demon fans. Except for no rockwork around the second loop, the California Demon is pretty much the same, ultimately a toss-up about whether or not the corkscrews give you a minor concussion.
Also, at times during my solo travels, I am blessed/cursed with a seatmate on a coaster. I don’t talk to many people while out and about on these excursions, but that certainly doesn’t stop people from talking to me, or in some cases, just talking away in general. Or yelling. Or panicking. Or completely flipping the fuck out. Or in some cases, all of them.
You know what Cedar Fair likes? Using sit-down floorless trains on old B&M stand-up coasters. They did it at Cedar Point when they turned Mantis into Rougarou, making it an actual rideable experience, so CGA decided to try this with Vortex, a 1991 stand-up (built only a year after the dreaded Iron Wolf at SFGAm). New floorless trains, a paint job, and new name later, and it became Patriot. The ride has the basic B&M stand-up layout, with a curved first drop, vertical loop, and that corkscrew that seems to change grade right in the middle of it. It was probably mildly uncomfortable while riders stood, but the sit-down trains made it a mildly entertaining experience. So, bonus point to Cedar Fair for taking chicken shit and making chicken salad.
The park wasn’t terribly crowded, and I was making good time with one coaster to go, Gold Striker, the wooden that I had seen when first entering the park. I’d enjoyed every GCI creation I’ve been on, and they were responsible for the seemingly magical retracking of Knott’s Ghostrider I had experienced yesterday. And as a bonus, GCI also created the Millennium Flyer style of trains, which are hands down the most comfortable wooden coaster trains I’ve ever experienced.
If Ghostrider was comparable to a loving and totally fulfilling sexual relationship with a long-term partner, Gold Striker is like the tawdry, borderline violent sex you would have with a stranger you met at a bar. From the first drop (fully covered in an attempt to keep screams from disturbing local business concerns), the ride is balls-on intense, with short but sickening airtime hills, heavily banked turns, and seemingly out of control speed. It’s the kind of ride where the exact layout eludes you the first time, existing in your memory as a jumbled series of wild elements and forces that throw you around in almost every way possible. My second ride (immediately after the first) was a little clearer, only interrupted by a dead stop on the lift hill so the operator could tell two people to put their goddamned cell phones away (something echoed by the rest of the train, but in much less professional terms). I felt like I could ride it properly after the third lap, but the fourth convinced me that maybe I needed to take a little Gold Striker break for a while. But there was no doubt, Gold Striker earned a solid place in my top five wooden coasters.
With all the coasters hit, I now had some time to roam the park as the skies started to darken. I made the questionable decision to allow nostalgia to trump pure and naked fear, and took a one-way trip to County Fair on the Delta Flyer, regulating my breathing the whole way as I fully remembered why I hate cable car rides. I did experience a pleasant surprise on the other side of the park in the Berserker, a Schwarzkopf Bayern-Kurve flat ride formerly known as the Yukon Yahoo. This ride was removed from SFGAm in 1991, and I’m not ashamed to say I ran toward it like a friend I had thought long dead. Between re-rides of Flight Deck, I took a shot at the Mass Effect: New Earth, the park’s “4D action theater”. I’ve been in a few of these before, and they all follow the same general idea: rows of open seats facing a big 3D screen, where some frantic action piece is shown accompanied by blasts of air, and some seat movements and rumblings. I know jack shit about the Mass Effect franchise, so most of the story presented went well over my head, but I will say that the 3D projection screen was among the clearest and sharpest I’ve ever seen in a park anywhere, and that includes Disney and Universal. I can only hope that Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is as clear. I ended the day with a few more laps on Gold Striker before taking my last ride on the Demon at 8:00 on the nose. By the time I had returned to Tracy, the In-n-Out Burger down the street had a line of at least twenty-five cars that backed up into and down the street, so I noped out and got Burger King and ate it in my shitty room before dropping off early. I had a long day ahead of me.
I started my Cancerversary at 4am, out the room door excited to spend the day at Six Flags Magic Mountain, and excited to not have to spend another night in that fucking hovel. Coffee-fueled, the drive was half-dark, half-light, smooth and unremarkable, and even with a leisurely stop to shove a few sausage biscuits into me, I was parked in the Magic Mountain lot at a quarter to ten. Today’s touring would be different from yesterday; I had already been to this park in 2004, but there were still a good number of coasters that had premiered in that time, or that I just plain missed out on. My priority would be on new-to-me credits, transforming into a mix of new and old as the day went on. SFMM actually used their early entry line for Gold Season Passholders, and I was released into the park at about 10:15am, free to wallow in my own crapulence.
I figured I might as well start with a piece of history, as the New Revolution was the first modern coaster to feature a vertical loop, opening in 1976. In 1993, the trains were fitted with OTSRs (over the shoulder restraints) for some nebulous insurance purposes, a move that reportedly made the coaster downright painful to experience. A 2016 refurbishment got rid of those restraints, along with a refurb of the track and new paint everywhere. As it was down the last time I was here, I got to avoid all that unpleasantness, and today’s Revolution is fun, a nice throwback to what was absolutely thrilling in the 1970’s. It uses the terrain of the park really well (something I would get used to over the course of the day), features a ride time over two minutes, and just looks and rides great. It’s nice to see Six Flags putting money into projects like this, and they did a spectacular job.
It was a short walk up a few hills to Viper, the Arrow megalooper similar in style to the torturous Shockwave that haunted SFGAm until 2002. Although far from dolphin smooth, Viper is free from most of the awkward transitions and violent shaking that were present during a typical lap on Shockwave.
The ride also receives bonus points in my book for a nice desert landscape under and around the layout, it’s simple but effective. The left side of the park features some serious elevation changes, and it’s quite a winding walk up to Ninja, one of only five Arrow Suspended coasters left in the world (my third one, after The Bat at Kings Island and Iron Dragon at Cedar Point). I like these Arrows, they’re zippy rides with some cool outward swinging forces not found on other styles of inverted coasters. Ninja kinda gives you the middle finger at the end, as a brake run leads into another lift hill, this one slowly elevating to bring you…back into the station. I’m sure the operators enjoy the looks on people’s faces during the WELCOME BACK, HOW WAS YOUR RIDE spiel.
The elevation started to drop again, allowing me to enjoy unprepared people’s faces as they struggle up the hill I’m coming down, and I took a quick detour to hop on Gold Rusher. I’d ridden it on my last visit, but I’ll never pass up one of these Arrow mine trains, they’re all little pieces of history with strange little layouts. Plus, it was the park’s first coaster, installed back in 1971. That’s gotta be worth something, right? One that I did somehow miss last time was Batman: The Ride, one of the many BatClones that I’d mentioned early. Batman had no line, literally, as I didn’t even see another person until I got to the station, walking into an empty front row. The BatClones are numerous, but for a reason; they’re fast and compact little monsters, even going so far as to fuck you up with a sharp turn into the final brake run. It was walking off Batman where I realized that 1) I was relatively close to Twisted Colossus, the park’s unique RMC coaster, 2) I had been in the park for about an hour and a half at this point, and 3) I wasn’t currently riding Twisted Colossus. This had to change.
Twisted Colossus is a dueling, racing, Mobius coaster, where two trains will race next to each other throughout the layout, engaging in dueling “near-misses” or close proximity situations. The unique thing about TC is that it only has one station; once the train leaves the station, it climbs the lift hill, completes the course, and climbs the other side of the lift hill, now next to the track from the first lap. The ideal situation is that a train is dispatched to climb the lift hill while the previous train begins the climb on the other side, causing them to run parallel. The dueling sections include a “high five”, where both trains are thrown 90 degrees to the side toward each other, and an inversion apiece where the train is upside down directly over the other.
In short, Twisted Colossus is all sorts of fucking amazing. The layout continually surprises, throwing you into turns and elements almost before you’re even ready for them, and the ejector air is fierce and everywhere. My first few rides didn’t duel, but when it finally did…wow. Along with everything going on around you, your brain only has the briefest of moments to realize that there’s a train full of people that just shouldn’t be there. And operations are usually on point, timely dispatches are key to getting the train to duel, not always an easy task with guests who don’t understand why they can’t take their luggage or lidless sports bottle on the ride with them. In an attempt to try to squeeze a duel out of everything, the second side of the lift hill can actually slow itself down if the train coming out of the station is a little tardy. Without dueling, it’s a great coaster, but with it, it’s flat out astounding.
I had planned to leave the park in the afternoon to check into my hotel for the night and get some lunch before returning for the second half of the day, but the age-old conflict of “Grumbling Stomach” vs. “Loathing Of Six Flags Food Operations” reared its head much earlier than I had anticipated. I figured pizza is pretty difficult to fuck up, which I finally got after ten minutes of confusion including two employees and a manager. (“Served with cheesebread” seems to be an easy concept to grasp, right? Especially when it’s right there on your goddamned menu screen.)
Next up was a spin on Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, the indoor DC Comics themed interactive shooting ride. It’s pretty similar to the SFGAm version, with a few more bells and whistles, and a Harley Quinn animatronic that bedevils you right before the unload station. The queue and preshow are configured different as well, and create the biggest issue I had with the California version. In the others, the animatronic character Cyborg is present in the queue section right before load, and (ideally) it’s always operating, delivering exposition the entire time guests are waiting to board. In SFMM’s version, Cyborg delivers his pre-show bullshit in a completely separate room, one where he stands motionless until the room fills up and attendants close the doors. In the story, Superman and Batman are out there, fighting impossible odds, and this guy is just standing there, doing nothing most of the time. Cyborg sucks.
Right across the way was Riddler’s Revenge, and I remember it as the only stand-up coaster I’ve ever truly found enjoyable. The layout, with its lift hill through a vertical loop, multiple dive loops (yay), speed, and length, seems more suited to a B&M sit-down coaster, but the standing aspect of it works just fine here. I think its sheer size has something to do with it, at a height of 165 feet and a big area to work with, the ride doesn’t need to rush into anything. The elements are big, with a lot of space for entrance and exit, eliminating the crush usually found in stand-up transitions (B&M corkscrews, looking your direction…). As good as it is with the standing trains, I think that traditional floorless sit-downs would kill on this layout. Maybe someday.
I had started to notice something as I made my way toward the front of the park. Most of the areas had a really good visual look, distinct but rich. The heavily wooded paths up and down the mountain had a simple but clean Asian look to them, both in architecture and ambient music. The DC Universe section was comic book bright and clean, all booming orchestral tracks and heroes and villains everywhere. The Steampunk section leading up to Twisted Colossus had totally gone in on its look of pipes, gears, and analog gauges. But every once in a while, sometimes right in the middle of a busy area, I came upon something that was stark, out of place, and clearly deserted. All of a sudden, bold as brass on a hill, there’s an abandoned two-story building. Look, over there, right on the midway, a boarded-up building that might have been a restaurant. Why is there a chain on that set of stairs, and where does it go? Is that severed monorail track just jutting out of that forest? It felt like the park is running on a 90 percent budget, and it’s just easier to let some things sit there. It’s kinda weird. I mean, this is the flagship park for Six Flags, when Cedar Point pretends something isn’t there, they’re actually building a 200-foot-tall RMC.
Now it really was my time to check into the room. The Comfort Suites down the road was an improvement in every way, bad hotel rooms really make you appreciate good ones. I took a quick dip in the pool, showered up, changed clothes, and headed back to the park. I had completely blanked on the fact that this was the first weekend of Fright Fest for the park, but I noticed it now, as lines to get in and buy maze tickets were still going strong. I spend the entirety of last year’s Fright Fest working at SFGAm as a scareactor, so it was going to be interesting to see things from the other side.
The line for the launched coaster Full Throttle was a full set of switchbacks under a stylized canopy when I left, and it was a little better now, so I decided to hop in line and bite the bullet. Probably my longest wait of the day at around a half hour, it gave me a chance to look at my surroundings. The plaza leading to the ride (“Full Throttle Plaza”) had an extreme sports and rock n roll vibe to it, with a big stage lit up for later, and a DJ blasting music. A big video screen under the canopy ran clips for the most extreme stuff (Skiing! Skateboarding! Parasailing! Full Throttle!).
The whole area felt like it would have rained Red Bull. With its high-octane wings, neon sports bottles, omnipresent pop music, and DC characters on fucking everything, Magic Mountain truly is the lair of the Six Flags monster…it’s like everything ALL their parks do, jammed together in one place. Except for the abandoned buildings, but maybe that’s just an homage to Six Flags New Orleans.
Oh, Full Throttle? Fucking great. Launched at 70mph into THE best vertical loop I’ve ever experienced, seriously…160 feet high, and the hangtime on this is SO long, but perfect. In a ride full of some odd stuff, this was a singular moment. (Much like the B&M Flyer’s Pretzel Loop, this is an element that I would ride again simply to experience it once more.) A dive loop into a tunnel, a backward then forward launch later, and you’re heading for what should be the coolest part of the ride, a top hat over the loop, but on the other side of the same piece of 160-foot-high track.
And the ride up and peak is great, unfortunately the train is magnetically trimmed as you begin your descent, robbing the element of what should have been a gut-wrenching feeling. Boo, Full Throttle, boo.
Goliath had a relatively short line (and was on the way back toward Twisted Colossus), so I decided to give the old orange hypercoaster a shot. I had been on Goliath before, as well as its doppelganger Titan at Six Flags Over Texas just seven months ago. I also don’t give this coaster shit about being called Goliath by a lazy Six Flags naming committee, as I’m pretty sure this was the first of its name. It’s a good ride, but its first half suffers from the same problem that have with Millennium Force, it’s really fast, but it doesn’t really DO anything. The first drop is 255 feet, not at all steep, which is kinda cool, as it puts the emphasis on top speed at the bottom (85mph). But the turnaround and long profiled hill are just…pleasant, not overly forceful or memorable. The second half has a little something, though, as a near-dead stop on the brake run leads into a slow twisting drop to the left that’s pretty unnerving in the front few rows. And then there’s the semi-legendary downward helix that almost greyed me out back in 2004. Not this time, though. I must be more hardcore.
There was no grand show that I saw as Fright Fest officially opened for the night, suddenly there were just a bunch of scare actors on the midway, heading off to their haunting places for the night, scaring those people who really weren’t paying attention. The Steampunk section was done up pretty well, with lots of lights, smoke, noise, and projection mapping on several buildings. I hit Twisted Colossus two more times, dueling once, and while waiting in line, I started watching the content on the Six Flags TV programming that was featured in most of the queues. Aside from the usual clips of Warner Bros. animation, truncated music videos, and short form commercials, there were a series of park-produced segments showcasing different subjects related to Magic Mountain. One might be two minutes focusing on ride design, another two and a half about the latest upscale restaurant experience they want to try. One was entirely focused on their midway games, slickly informing you that the number one polled reason why people like games is “tradition”. Why not start your own “tradition” today, asks Six Flags TV? I also noticed they only showed good prizes, none of the SpongeBob or Minion knock-off crap you actually see people walking around with. Nice try, Six Flags.
I started the long trek toward the far end of the park, passing the inert form of Green Lantern: First Flight, an Intamin ZacSpin. The ride had been closed all day and nothing had changed, save for the gigantic Green Lantern logo on the side that was now turned on, glowing brightly. Most every opinion I’ve heard about GL:FF (eww…I don’t like the way that looks) was negative, specifying a rough ride and uncomfortable restraints, so I figured my inability to ride might be a good thing. Continuing on, I passed the abandoned two-story building again, which I later found out was one of the stations for the park’s former monorail. And much like the non-operational Green Lantern, the building was fully lit at night, as if waiting for riders for something that doesn’t exist. This park could be so bizarre.
My destination was X2, the 4th Dimension coaster that was so problematic to refine, it pretty much put Arrow out of business in the early 2000s. A 4D coaster has seats that rotate 360 degrees head over heels while the train navigates the course. With two riders on each side of the track, X2’s trains are wide, massive affairs, and the station feels very much like an airplane hangar, probably the biggest one I’ll ever set foot in.
The trains climb the lift hill with riders facing out and away, accompanied by onboard audio that is SO Six Flags (mixing Harry Connick Jr., Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”, and audio clips of Jack Nicholson and R. Lee Ermey yelling things). During the dip after the top of the lift hill, the seats rotate downward, leading to a screaming dive toward the bottom, 215 feet below. The seats rotate again at the bottom and begin to face out as the train rises into a raven turn, which looks somewhat similar to an Immelmann loop. The rotation is subtle here, and moves the riders into a rising and flying position as they peak and dive, ending up back on the sides of the track at the bottom of the element. It’s unlike any other first drop on a coaster, and the opening sequence through the raven turn is easily one of the best starts in history. The rotation of the seats is hardly random, though, a second set of rails on the track near the first control the movement. At one point, a combination of a twist of the track and seat rotation will put the front-facing first row to roaring backwards, looking back at the rest of the train. I guess the onboard audio continues during the ride, but it’s barely audible over the roar of the track and the rush of the wind. (It’s a good thing too, because I’m told it features “Sabatoge”, entrance music of the hated Mercenary from LWF lore.) X2 is a grand experience, and with its reputation for long lines, slow dispatches, and mechanical problems, I’m beyond happy I scored a walk-on.
In full disclosure, I don’t really like flying coasters. I’m not comfortable on them. The very nature of the flying coaster exerts forces on the rider during almost the entire experience, pushing them into the face-down restraints either by gravity or elements. The lift hills wig me out, very badly. With one main exception, the layouts are usually uninspired and meandering. And then there’s waiting on the brake run after the ride, face down, just hanging there while everyone else on the train thinks this is a good time to start spitting. In fact, the main reason I ride them at all is because of the pretzel loop, an element unique to B&M flyers where the train soars into the air before diving down to put riders on their backs just above the ground before pulling out and leveling off. The pretzel loop is one of the greatest elements ever put on a steel coaster; the negative Gs while diving headfirst in the beginning are sublime, and the sudden (and sometimes brutal, depending on how far back you are in the train) positive Gs at the low point are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced anywhere. And it was this goddamned pretzel loop that had me lining up for Tatsu, the park’s 2006 B&M flyer.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a “perfect coaster”. Most enthusiasts (myself included) rank their coasters from “perfection” and down, and some (myself not included) bitch about their opinion and how they differ from others on the Internet. It’s, simply put, a matter of personal taste. But there may be something to the concept of “perfect coaster for its style or model”, and if that’s the case, I think Tatsu might qualify. Sure, the lift hill caused me some serious concern (mostly due to clearing a set of trees that are right below you and then continuing up and off the side of a fucking mountain), but Tatsu is the flying coaster that does everything right. The corkscrew, zero-g roll, and hammerhead turn that take place after the initial drop are pretty high in the sky, and use the forest and mountain below as a perfect visual landscape. And Tatsu saves the pretzel loop for last, as well as increasing its size to a massive 124 feet high, and in this case, bigger is most definitely better. I don’t think Tatsu’s will ever leave my list of top five elements. All in all, the coaster scares the shit out of me, but I can’t wait to ride it again.
I had nothing else left to hit on this side of the park, so I took a walk down toward the area near the closed-for-maintenance Apocalypse, a 2009 GCI wooden coaster that replaced the abysmal Psyclone (a ride, that at one point, was the single worst thing I had ever been on). I figured if nothing else, at least I could get a look at it. Six Flags put a lot of money into Fright Fest theming and decorations for this park, and it shows. I went through a haunted blacklight forest that had such a cool visual look, I turned right around and went through it again. I was a little surprised at the amount of street scareactors; some of the areas were crawling with them, but moving on, I wouldn’t see another for ten to fifteen minutes. Maybe it had something to do with the size of the park, but I know last year at SFGAm, you couldn’t go a hundred feet without being able to eyeball at least one of them.
Holy shit, Apocalypse was open! I had been content with the fact that I wasn’t going to ride it, but fuck that! More GCI goodness on this trip. It originally opened as Terminator: Salvation, with a heavy emphasis on several preshow elements in an attempt to tie into the success of the movie. Anyone who has seen Terminator: Salvation probably wouldn’t associate the word “success” with it in any way, and when Six Flags recovered from bankruptcy in 2010, the intellectual property got chucked. The queue is still nicely detailed, with several rooms full of post-apocalyptic doo-dads and newly filmed video sequences that try to explain some kind of nebulous story to guests who are basically just rushing by. The ride itself is really good; compact, twisting, and fast, and features a fly-through the station over waiting riders’ heads. The location of the ride also bears mention; bordered only by a haunt maze, the ride is near the edge of the property, away from lights and distractions, and the lift hill is a rare moment of quiet in such a chaotic place.
It was getting late, and I only had a little over an hour left before closing. I had hit everything I had needed, and after checking to see if the Del Taco near my hotel was open 24 hours (it was!), I decided to spend the last bits of my evening marathoning Twisted Colossus. I took a short detour to Scream, the park’s 2004 B&M Floorless coaster, and only in this park could a 150-foot-tall steel coaster with seven inversions and a top speed of 63mph be considered a red-headed stepchild. To be fair, a lot of the Internet bitching is about how Scream is a parking lot coaster, i.e., a coaster built on the former site of a parking lot with no attempt to hide that fact. Apparently, this is a big issue in some people’s lives. It doesn’t bother me, because 1) riding at night, it doesn’t matter if it’s a parking lot below you, and 2) doesn’t the ground under Twisted Colossus look the same? Scream is just fine, especially in the front row, which allows the floorless design to really shine.
Then it was all Twisted Colossus, for about an hour. This time spent simply cemented my opinion that TC is easily the best thing going at Magic Mountain, and would be almost anywhere else. Ops were on, and most rides featured at least one duel, if not both. Cycling around from exit to entrance was easy, with an average wait of five minutes, maybe ten if I wanted front row. Some dude that was with me on one cycle walked just as quickly as I did behind me, and probably looking to run himself as stupid as I was, followed me on to the next few trains. We exchanged one nod, on the second ride. He never took his headphones off.
At 11pm, I started my slow walk toward the front of the park, stopping to see if this Six Flags offered the same homogenous bullshit when it came to merchandise. (Verdict: a few good things, but nowhere near where it should be.) About an hour or so later, I realized I had fallen asleep while sitting up on my hotel bed, NFL highlights playing, with Del Taco in hand. This had been a long day, but a proper Cancerversary.
Not having to get up at the crack of dawn to ride rollercoasters for the fourth straight day, I slept in a bit, got some Starbucks, and took a meandering and scenic drive off the beaten path to Ventura. Here, I picked up Highway 1, and soon I was looking on the Pacific Ocean on a beautiful day for the first time. (I had only seen this ocean once before, in 2004 from Venice Beach, on what can only be described as a “proper British day”.) I pulled over at the first safe opportunity, and spent a wonderful fifteen minutes breathing deeply and absorbing the sound and the grandeur of the ocean. I stopped again a few miles south, getting into the surf for the first time and wondering at the immense push and pull created by the water. I had budgeted quite a bit of time for this portion of the day, and I used it well, eventually making my way south through Malibu and to the Santa Monica Pier. The Pier is Jersey-touristy by way of California, with an eclectic collection of food stands, gift shops, amusement rides, one-man-bands, craft vendors, and assorted personalities. (My two favorites were the girl the neon pink hair in a full-on astronaut suit, and the elderly black man with multiple handwritten signs offering a variety of services, including “Revenge Tips”)
I also had another reason for stopping at the Pier, and that was the Santa Monica West Coaster, a Morgan steel family coaster, and my last coaster of the trip. Like the rest of the rides on the Pier, the West Coaster was just put wherever, and although it won’t win any awards, it’s a perfectly serviceable family coaster with a few little drops and a wee little helix. And they sent us through two laps, so I consider that a win. I gave myself a good amount of time to get the rental car back and check in at LAX, but that time was coming to a close. I enjoyed a very tasty burger at Pier Burger, and prepared to bid California a fond farewell.
But first, I had to stop to talk to the guy selling Revenge Tips. I paid him a five, and tipped him a five. It was THAT good.