For the last few years, I’ve made it a habit to head down to Walt Disney World for my birthday, where I spend a few days roaming parks and resorts in a comfortable haze. I try new restaurants, revisit old favorites, and stay on property, allowing the Mouse to cart my MagicBand-wearing ass around. This year, however, the dates fell too close to the Princess half marathon, and the only available accommodations were at the Deluxe level. Not hype on the idea of dropping eight hundred bucks a night for a hotel room I’d barely see, I turned my eye elsewhere.
Each option I came up with seemed to have its own pitfalls. My first choice was a few days at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, where I hadn’t been since 2004, and my SF Membership would prove to be a benefit. The price of airfare was absolutely insane, though, and despite trying every conceivable combination (flying into San Francisco late the night before and driving down to LA, and assorted shit like that), there was no way I could justify paying that. My second choice was to return to Florida, but spend a few days at Busch Gardens in Tampa, where I hadn’t been since the late eighties. This time it was the rental car market that fucked me, and I regrettably scratched Tampa off my list.
That left Texas. Two Six Flags parks I’d never been to, four hours apart, and opening weekend for both. I checked the weather. Highs in the 80s, lows in the 50s. Yeah, let’s do this.
I flew into Dallas early Friday morning, selected a nice nondescript Chevy, and took the interstate south until I was well clear of the metropolitan area. Then I put everything in the hands of the GPS, opened up my “Texas” playlist, and headed off the big pavement onto a “farm to market” road, and continued to squirrel my way south. My destination was Kingsland, Texas, to have a nice country lunch at a little place called the Grand Central Cafe. Aside from having what sounded like a really good chicken fried steak, GCC also happens to be the house from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, relocated and restored in the nineties.
And on the way there, I was on roads very similar to the ones where countless victims fell prey to Leatherface and his cannibalistic (and barbecue-award-winning) family. Most of my experience driving in Texas had been pretty flat, so I was surprised to see hills, bluff, and lakes the further south I drove. Every once in a while on one of the dozens of backroads I was on, I would pass a huge ornate gate for a ranch, sometimes a huge home visible in the distance, sometimes just a winding road, too far to see the end. I had some time to play with, and it was definitely refreshing getting off the expressway.
I’ll admit, it was a little creepy walking up to that house. It looked much as it did in the 1974 film (the home looked “normal” in the movie, which made what was inside even worse), and the front door opens into the iconic hallway/stairway. But instead of animal pelts and a rickety sliding metal door, there’s polished wood and a smiling hostess behind a podium.
There’s nothing that gives you the indication that this is anything else but a charming little cafe in a small Texas town. For someone who had the image of this house seared into his brain since age eight (good call, Mom and Dad), it was jarring and awesome all at the same time.
I ate my chicken fried steak (worthy of the hype) right about where the family was trying to get Grandpa to kill Sally Hardesty with a hammer. I wanted to enjoy the experience as a meal first (which I certainly did) and a ghoulish tourist attraction second, and I only gave myself away to the waitress when she saw me taking pictures of the staircase.
Turned out I was far from the only one to make the trek out here as a Chainsaw fan, including one fan who flew out here from fucking China just to visit. There was a bar/lounge upstairs, and most of the memorabilia was there, signed photos from the cast, pictures from fan gatherings, and several paintings of a developmentally disabled man wearing a mask of human skin.
I rolled into my hotel in San Antonio in the early evening, kicked my shoes off, laid on the bed, and then spent the next two hours unsuccessfully trying to motivate myself to get up. This shouldn’t have been surprising, considering that I had left the house this morning at 3am, but I finally managed to pry myself up to get some water and snacks from down the street. I returned to the room and spent my birthday evening munching on cheese and nuts, watching a few episodes of Liv and Maddie. Don’t judge.
I ate a fast breakfast Saturday morning after being seated in IHOP’s Screaming Baby Room, and headed off to Six Flags Fiesta Texas, where I was one of the first dozen or so cars to park when the lot opened. There were maybe a few hundred people in line by the time the ticket gates opened; the weather was sunny but still pretty chilly, and wouldn’t warm up until the afternoon, which I hoped would keep early attendance down. My plan was simple, hit the big stuff as fast as possible, keeping ahead of the crowds as best I could. Rerides could wait until later, I was all about credit whoring this weekend.
First up was Iron Rattler, the steel reprofile of the old Rattler wooden coaster by the good folks at Rocky Mountain Construction. Iron Rattler was one of the first RMC projects, and I was interested to see how it stood up to the other two I’d ridden (Goliath at SFGAm and StormChaser at Kentucky Kingdom). It literally being Opening Day, the park only had one train running while the other was still in offseason rehab, and after behind held at the gate for a few cycles, the coaster opened about fifteen minutes later. The ride was balls to the wall, consisting of a great stalled first drop, several overbanked turns, a zero-g roll, and a weird series of banked hills that led to a screaming dive off a quarry wall and into a tunnel originally taken by the wooden coaster’s course. I wasn’t quite sure where it ranked for me yet, but it would probably come close to cracking my top ten steel. Unfortunately, the line had grown substantially during my ride, so an immediate reride didn’t look like it was in the cards.
The mounting line at Iron Rattler hopefully meant that lines weren’t bad yet at anything else, a theory proven correct at the Road Runner Express, the park’s mine train coaster that ran next to the same quarry wall. Most mine trains are slow, low to the ground affairs, with the emphasis on swooping curves and dips, but RRE was a bit atypical, installed in 1997 and the last Six Flags mine train manufactured by Arrow Dynamics. A 67 foot first drop was nothing to sneer at, and I was surprised at the speed and force through several of the turns. A family coaster yes, but probably the zippiest mine train I’d ever been on.
I bit the bullet, and got in line for the Boomerang, the park’s Vekoma shuttle coaster, as that wait wasn’t going to get any prettier as the day went on. Luckily, the ops seemed pretty on, and I managed to ride after about a half hour wait, not awful for the notoriously slow loading Vekoma headbanger. The ride was relatively smooth, not much different than the version I’d ridden at Knott’s Berry Farm, but nothing I would be likely to repeat that day. After a little bit of speedwalking, I got in a short line for Pandemonium, a Gerstlauer spinning coaster that featured small 4 person cars with a free spin feature through a relatively tame layout. They’re fun little installations, and it was a perfectly serviceable mid-sized thrill.
The park’s launched coaster Poltergeist looked like it would be down most of the day due to high wind conditions, so I headed up toward the top of the park to Superman: Krypton Coaster, a B&M Floorless coaster that also interacted with the quarry wall. B&Ms are known throughout the industry as workhorses; reliable rides with high capacity. Usually.
I understand that operating a coaster might suck sometimes. I may have never done it myself, but I know ops from several parks and I’m pretty well versed in basic park operations, I know it’s not easy. There’s an emphasis on safety, efficiency, and show, usually in that order, with safety being paramount as it should be. But efficiency wasn’t really on the docket at the Krypton Coaster that day, featuring some of the most maddeningly slow movement I’ve seen from a crew in a long time. Most of the warping of time and space came from the actions of the main op in the booth and his perplexing way of handling loose objects. The signage in the station is very explicit: all loose items that can’t be secured (sport bottles, backpacks, whatever stupid fucking Green Lantern cape you decided to spend eight bucks to win) must be placed on the unload platform behind a yellow line. Simple, no? Of course it is, and that’s why people routinely fuck it up. Shit was over the line, every time. You’d figure it would be just as easy as having one of the ops checking restraints push the shit back over the line with their foot as they go, right?
Nope. Nobody did that. The guy in the booth would wait until restraints were checked, then inform one of the other ops about one of the offending items. One. Just one of the items. He would then wait until the op had returned to their ready position before calling out another item. And none of the other employees seemed to have the independent thought that if you’re pushing one back, you should probably just push them all back. Every once in a while, the booth op would just pop the restraints open, seemingly for no reason. Dispatches were like, seven or eight minutes apiece, and for those of you not in the know, that really kinda sucks. The coaster was running three trains, and two of those trains, loaded with riders, seemed eternally stacked on the brake run leading into the station.
When I finally got to ride it, Krypton Coaster was pretty good; it had a nice diving first drop, great hangtime in a huge vertical loop, and several moments of interaction with the quarry wall. Sure as shit, though, I sat my happy ass strapped in that train on the brake run for a good ten minutes before I was able to disembark. It got it, it was Opening Day, maybe a new crew…but c’mon, man. A little urgency, please.
Fuck, there was still nothing going on with Poltergeist, so it was time to try out Fiesta Texas’s newest coaster, Batman: The Ride. Six Flags has themed so much shit to Batman over the years, you don’t know what the fuck is what half the time. There’s Batwings, and Dark Knight Coasters, and Batman The Escape, and Batman Adventure: The Ride, not to mention all the shit they theme to the villains…they just mine the absolute hell out of the license.
This particular Batman was a new S&S 4D Free Spin coaster, a bizarre looking contraption that used a series of adjustable magnetic fins to spin riders 360 degrees head over heels throughout the course. (Several of these are going up in Six Flags parks this year themed to the Joker, including one at Great America) I was on the fence about this ride. The flips and spins were surprisingly smooth, but they were really the ride’s only trick. There were only a few brief moments where you weren’t spinning or titling that allowed you to actually realize where you were on the track. I also didn’t have much memory of any of the physical sensations created by the layout itself, the spinning really kinda overpowered everything. Capacity could also be an issue; each train only held eight riders, four on each side of the structure (and the four on the other side are never even visible to you, which is kinda weird). Although things were moving as fast as they could, loading and unloading was still slow, and this was a Saturday in late February, not mid-July.
It was getting to mid afternoon by this point, I hadn’t eaten yet, and I still had a side jaunt that I wanted to take. So I gave Poltergeist one last look to negative results, and headed toward the front of the park for my final coaster, Goliath. Another name that Six Flags uses for fucking everything, this Goliath is a B&M inverted coaster formerly know as, wait for it…Batman: The Ride. It used to be at Six Flags New Orleans, where its elevated station and layout helped it survive the unpleasantness of 2005. Then-Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro (who, to the best of my knowledge, has never actually stolen pennies off a dead man’s eyes) yanked what remained of value from the soupy mess, and dropped the coaster into Fiesta Texas. The Thirty Fourth Thing Named Goliath was a standard B&M Inverted, with five inversions and good speed, and happily, a walk-on for me. Leaving my options open for a return at some point before closing, I got my hand stamped, ate my first Whataburger across the street, and headed east.
My destination was Seguin, Texas, forty five minutes away, and home to ZDT’s, a local family owned amusement park. I don’t usually make a habit to drive nearly an hour out of my way for a small park like this, but most parks don’t have the world’s first modern wooden shuttle coaster, Switchback.
It looked all the world like a traditional wooden coaster at first: lift hill, first and subsequent drops, banked turns…and then a vertical spike where the track just ended. Up the spike, and then back down, to take the whole course in reverse. It made little to no sense for a park like this to build something like this, but you gotta love em for their “fuck it, we’re doing it” attitude. And from the hordes of children attending birthday parties at the park that day, ZDT’s probably ain’t hurting for business. In my life, I only like a few specific kids, and they certainly weren’t among this number, so I rode Switchback a few times, bought a t-shirt, and then started the forty five minute drive back to San Antonio. After a few drinks, I was off to bed early, I had a long day ahead of me.
I left San Antonio well before dawn, headed north to Dallas and Six Flags Over Texas. My hotel room wouldn’t be anywhere close to ready by the time I arrived, so I planned to be at the gates well before opening and hit what I could as fast as I could, hopefully getting most of it under my belt by check-in time. I made incredible time, thanks to basically abandoned roads and a 75mph speed limit, and even with stopping for gas and coffee, and lingering in a few gift shop sections of truck stops, I pulled into the SFOT lot at about 9:45am for a 10:30 opening. Yesterday had been sunny but chilly, but today looked overcast with possible rain coming in early to mid afternoon. And this park was bigger than Fiesta Texas, I was going to have to move fast.
There were a few hundred people behind me when the gates opened, but after a few minutes of fastwalking, it didn’t seem like anyone was following me, and I was first at the chain at the entrance of the New Texas Giant. Much like Iron Rattler, RMC reprofiled the Texas Giant wooden coaster into a new steel creation, and the rave reviews began to pour in. NTG was also only running one train, but the park attempted to ease the wait by utilizing a reserved return time system for when the lines started to build, not a half bad idea. The line started to fill behind me, and we were let into the station to wait for the coaster to finish its morning test cycles.
Maybe it was because I was expecting so much, but I just wasn’t completely floored by the New Texas Giant. There was a lot to like about it; the trains were comfortable, it was definitely fast in the first half, the first drop was spectacular (especially in the back row), and there was some great ejector air in parts. But it seemed to slow dramatically in the second half (possibly due to the weather, I’ll give it that), and although shorter, Iron Rattler seemed to have better all-over pacing. New Texas Giant is still easily in the top three coasters in the park, but is probably the least impressive of the RMCs that I’ve ridden so far (even though it would absolutely kill in almost any park in the world).
I backtracked toward the front of the park, headed for La Vibora, the park’s Intamin bobsled coaster, where cars rolled freely down a winding steel trough. (Some Chicagoans may remember the pain of Rolling Thunder, a similar installation at Great America in the early 90s.) During my research of the park, I had seen more than a few people suggest that La Vibora should be hit early, as loading times and lines would grow pretty quickly even in the morning, but I was lucky enough to walk all the way up to the station and be on my way in a manner of minutes. La Vibora seemed a lot more fun to me than Rolling Thunder ever did; it seemed faster, and I certainly don’t remember the bobsleds themselves being that comfortable. So far, I had been underwhelmed by an RMC and enjoyed a bobsled coaster. This was going to be a weird day.
Next on my list was Shock Wave, the park’s classic Schwarzkopf steel looping coaster. Schwarzkopfs are a throwback to the days of the roller coaster reserguence of the 70’s, when a single vertical loop was sight enough to stop foot traffic dead on a park midway. Shock Wave had two fucking loops, and had been a headliner at the park for many years. Recently, for reasons known only to themselves, Six Flags has gotten into the thoroughly annoying habit of slapping “virtual reality experiences” on several of their older coasters, breathlessly advertising it as an adventure where you battle aliens, or gargoyles, or some menacing shit like that. VR was installed on Shock Wave last year, and although you had the option to not strap a fucking phone to your face for the duration of a roller coaster ride, long lines and creeping dispatch times had pretty much become the norm. I had zero interest in the VR, but felt it wise to hit the coaster early before things got crowded with whatever bullshit the whole procedure created. Imagine my surprise when I walked up to an empty station and the news that the VR wasn’t even being offered that morning. So instead of experiencing a slightly misaligned battle against aliens by way of clunky Playstation 2 graphics, I got to enjoy the wind in my face on a classic Schwarzkopf steel.
I entered the park’s Gotham City area (where the main industry appeared to be games of skill for poorly-constructed stuffed prizes)
and lined up for Mr. Freeze: Reverse Blast, a Premier Rides launched shuttle coaster. I had been on the Six Flags St. Louis version several times, which had the same layout (launch, inside top hat, overbanked turn, vertical spike, and then the whole course backwards), but I had not experienced the ride since the trains were turned backwards as they were here. Freeze was already a great ride, but the 180 flip of the trains actually improves the experience. With no view of when the train is about to go vertical into the top hat, the launch is much more disorientating now, and the view from the top of the 218 foot vertical spike is amazing. Right across the plaza was another clone, Batman: The Ride, a mirror image of the Goliath I had just rode yesterday. I was in line, on the ride, and off again, barely stopping. It seemed that the crowds hadn’t quite caught up to me yet, so I was going to keep blazing.
This park also had a version of Pandemonium that was identical to the one at Fiesta Texas, but this one featured a single rider line with no one in it. On and off, and I headed to the far flung and damn near hidden entrance for the park’s classic wooden coaster Judge Roy Scream, which is set completely away from the rest of the park next to a lake. This may be intentional, an attempt to keep the rest of the park patrons from hearing Judge Roy Scream riders complaining about how fucking awful it is. And I understand, it’s a wooden coaster, it’s “supposed” to be rough. Judge Roy Scream was probably okay back in the day, but it’s no longer that day.
Research didn’t really give me much information about Runaway Mountain, so aside from a “coaster in the dark”, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The exterior of the ride building and queue were nicely decorated with faux rockwork, and a themed mine shaft led to the loading station inside. What Runaway Mountain was was dark, not quite pitch black, but it was close enough. What was probably a relatively placid ride felt like it was out of control when you had no visual reference, and darkness continues to be the most cost effective special effect of all. (EDIT: After checking, I found out that this thing hits 40mph, that’s suprisingly fast, faster than most of the Space Mountains.) Runaway Mountain was also awesome for another reason: zippered mesh bags attached to the train for your loose shit. Why doesn’t every coaster on Earth have these?
Although it had been only cycling sporadically throughout the day, the hypercoaster Titan finally looked like it was up and running, so after a few dead-end turnarounds (hardly the first of my day), I finally made my way toward the orange behemoth at the edge of the park. At 245 feet, Titan was not only the tallest coaster at SFOT, but the tallest in the entire state of Texas. It was pretty similar to Goliath at Six Flags Magic Mountain (another goddamned Goliath), with an out-and-back layout (and even the same color scheme). I liked Titan more than Goliath, though, and more than most of the B&M hypers I’ve been on. The first drop wasn’t a gut wrenching affair, but more of a steep slope that really gave the sensation of picking up speed. And it’s fast as fuck (85mph), and did a fair job in maintaining that speed, even with a mid-course brake run that literally brought the entire train to a dead stop. The arrested movement was understandable, though, as the final helix pulled some serious positive Gs, and I could see greying (or blacking) out as an issue if it were taken at speed.
My total coaster count stood at 149 at that point, and as I had planned and hoped, SFOT had one last coaster for me to ride. Opened in 1966 (and the oldest coaster in the park), Runaway Mine Train was also the world’s first mine train ride, and seemed fitting for a lanmark credit. I like mine trains, they’re usually pretty well themed, most feature multiple lift hills, and some even have a little bit of legitimate zip to them. Runaway Mine didn’t disappoint: a partially wooded setting with some water features, three lift hills, a cool underwater tunnel dive, and a slow roll through the “Ace Hotel and Saloon” and the dead-eyed gaze of its mannequin patrons.
When I checked my phone, I was stunned. I had somehow managed to knock out ten coasters in a little less than three hours. Mr. Freeze and Runaway Mountain were the only real lines I had encountered, and those waits were inconveniences more than anything else. I had encountered a few pockets of congestion in the park throughout the morning, but the crowds were nowhere near as bad as I had feared. The midways started to get more crowded as I approached the front of the park, though, as did the lines at what seemed like every single eatery. The line was way too long at JB’s Smokehouse (which I have found to be the best option when in a foreign Six Flags), so I decided I would be better off getting my hand stamped, checking into my room, and maybe eating something that wasn’t accompanied by a hard sell for a neon-colored sports bottle. Plus, I realized that with the exception of a huge coffee and a handful of Starburst, I hadn’t eaten since Whataburger, nearly 24 hours ago.
Both my hotel rooms were from the same chain and identical in price, but while the San Antonio version was a fantastic deal, in Dallas I got exactly what I paid for. The room was acceptable, but the view of a barbed wire-topped wall of an impound lot was less than cheerful. I opted for a safe dining choice, and headed for a Cracker Barrel down the frontage road., before touring several large pawn shops that dotted the area. Regerettably, I saw nothing that wouldn’t have been a pain in the ass to fly home with. I got a nice little pop of serendipity when I returned to the room, when I reconnected with an old Illinois friend living in Dallas that I hadn’t seen in at least ten years. We ended up sharing a table at Denny’s until well after dawn, eating bacon and goofing on the cast of characters you see in the middle of the night at a Denny’s.
I managed to catch about an hour and a half of sleep before check out, and killed some time at an outlet mall (thankfully with an Auntie Anne’s that understood the concept of “no salt sour cream and onion, double dipped”) before I headed into Dallas proper for the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the site of the assasination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. With a self guided audio tour, the museum presentes a pretty comprehnsive timeline in a series of exhibits, starting with Kennedy’s early years, the 1960 Presidential race, and leading up to November, 1963. You eventually turn a corner and there’s the shooter’s nest, bold as brass, a recreated stack of period-appropriate boxes behind a plexiglass corner wall. As you approach the wall and the windows (and mind you, you’re no more than eight to ten feet to the right of where that rifle was cradled), what you see when you look outside for the first time in maybe forty five minutes is almost exactly what Oswald saw. It’s a neat little psychological thing, probably meant to be a little jarring, and it certainly is. The rest of the museum chronicles the hours, days, weeks, and beyond that followed. The physical exhibits were pretty impressive: the scale model of the Plaza used by the FBI in their investigation, the Presidential place setting for the lunch Kennedy would never make, even a mannequin with the beige suit of the cop rearing back in that picture where Oswald gets a slug in the gut Jack Ruby-style.
It was starting to get close to the time I had to drop the rental car off and get my ass back home, so I went down to the Plaza itself and took in all the typical sightlines, stood where Zapruder filmed history, but avoided the consipracy theory-looking guy with the easels full of propoganda and what would have undoubtedly been a taxing conversation. There were a helpful pair of white X’s on the pavement, the first marking the first shot, the second the fatal one. The whole thing was powerful stuff, a location frozen in time and history that was recognizable and unfamiliar at the same time. As I got back into the rental car for the last time, I learned that my route back to the airport would take me right down Elm Street toward the triple underpass, right down the lane of history. I waited at the light until there was no one coming, and turned on to Elm at motorcade speed. When I hit the second X, I put that pedal to the floor like I was racing to Parkland Hospital, and didn’t let up until I was past the underpass.
Until next time, Texas.