Seventeen times. I’ve been to Walt Disney World seventeen times. No, I never lived in a nearby state or Florida itself (despite having a successful job interview and Kissimmee apartment picked out in the Summer of 2001). And no, it wasn’t a yearly family tradition; in fact, only two of my trips were as a kid, the rest were as a paying adult. I went solo a lot in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and started that tradition up again in 2015. This trip was for unique purpose, though, and was gonna be quick and manic.
But not manic enough to where I couldn’t grab some available Florida coaster credits, so I started things off with a 5:30am flight to Tampa out of Midway. I like flying as early as possible; lines to get through security are usually pretty short, and taking off before the sun comes up normally means I’ll be on my first ride by 10:30am. I was saddled with a shit boarding position despite online check-in exactly 24 hours early, but somehow managed to score one of the last window seats, this one in the last row. Unfortunately, my middle seatmate was a gentleman of “exceptional proportions” and a solid C- grade as it pertained to overall smell. Thankfully, he slept almost immediately, but his thick, Bisquick-like bleeding over the armrest forced me to turn my body about 40 degrees away to get comfortable. It was only after landing when he shambled down the aisle ahead of me that I noticed that he was wearing a hat and t-shirt from the 1999 Denzel Washington-Angelina Jolie movie The Bone Collector. Now that’s what you call a fan.
The last time I was at Busch Gardens Tampa was when people knew who Michael Dukakis was, and the park had grown quite a bit over that amount of years. I budgeted enough time to hit everything with a few re-rides and a relaxed lunch before making the drive toward Orlando. I got through security eventually, and headed for Cheetah Hunt, the park’s Intamin Blitz coaster. There’s only one other Blitz in the United States, and it happens to be Maverick at Cedar Point, my number one coaster since 2010. I knew going in that Cheetah Hunt wasn’t going to be nearly as intense, but my hopes were high for the experience regardless.
It took me two rides to “get” Cheetah Hunt, the first was to get it out of my head that it wasn’t going to be like Maverick, and a second, front row seat to really enjoy it. The ride starts with a solid launch out of the station into a banked turn that drops into a second launch that kicks twice as fast. The launch leads up a steep hill into a figure 8 turnaround, and this rise to the top alone makes a front row ride worth it. The pop of air at the top is short, but distinctive and absolutely sick. The figure 8 leads into a deceptively deep drop of 130 feet before shooting up and over the park’s Skyride and through the only inversion, a heartline roll taken just slowly enough. After the brake run, Cheetah Hunt gets low and fast, ripping and zig zagging through the remains of the former Rhino Rally attraction, over a river, past rockwork, and through a tunnel. A third launch leads into a nice airtime hill and a few turns before returning to the station. Looks like I’ll need to go to Europe for my Blitz fix now. Oh, no. Someone, please stop me.
Down the way was Montu, heavily hyped by some enthusiasts to be one of, if not the best B&M Inverted coasters. The ride itself is really good, with standout elements including an Immelmann loop that I actually liked, a zero-g roll with a fast pull out, and an extremely forceful batwing (a dive loop leading directly into an Immelmann). But the ride’s Egyptian theming is what really sets it apart, starting in the queue and station, and features several dives into dig trenches in the ride’s second half. The whole Montu experience is good, and the coaster itself truly is better than most of the B&M Inverts I’ve ridden. Seating is a toss-up depending on what you like, the front seat offers the best visuals for the course, but the back is heavy with forces.
Backtracking toward the rest of the park, I queued up for Busch Gardens’ newest coaster, Cobra’s Curse, a 2016 Mack model. Themed to an archeological dig, Cobra’s Curse offers a few variations on the traditional spinning coaster, with a 70-foot-high elevator lift instead of a lift hill, three separate experiences throughout the course (the cars run forward for the first third, backwards for the second, and spin freely for the final), and near-constant verbal taunting from the omnipresent snake king, “King Venymyss”. Cobra’s Curse was one of the more entertaining spinning coasters I’ve been on, it’s got a nice zippy layout, and the turning of the cars works more as a part of the ride instead of just a gimmick. I also liked how King Venymyss tells us that there’s “no escape from the Cobra’s Curse” after the car is safely stopped on the brake run. Timing, man.
Next up on the list was Scorpion, a 1980 Schwarzkopf Silverarrow model that was the park’s second rollercoaster. The last time I was here as a kid, Scorpion was closed for the day, so it was finally time to get that damned credit. There’s not many Schwarzkopf models of any kind left in the United States, and anything that allows me to traverse a vertical loop with just a lapbar is okay in my book.
Scorpion’s layout is pretty simple; there’s the loop and then what feels like an endless helix, but the whole thing ends up being a little more intense than it looks. The entrance into the loop is a pretty robust affair, especially in the front row, and although the rest of the ride is basically just a big turn, it’s intense and taken fast and low to the ground. One train operation meant that I waited about a half hour, but it’s always good to see a park that maintains its older coasters.
Lunch consisted of a mediocre Cuban sandwich and a conversation with a nice older couple who seemed amazed that I traveled around the country alone to ride rollercoasters. (Her: “Well, at least it’s a clean hobby. You could be spending your money on drugs.” Me: “I could, I just don’t have a good hookup down here.” Her: “What’s that now?”) I watched a few cycles of the 335-foot-high Falcon’s Fury drop tower, where the seats pitch forward 90 degrees before the drop. This might be the only thrill ride where I’ve seen multiple people on the ground shrieking in terror, and for me, it’s a whole lotta nope. Instead, I took a run at Sand Serpent, the park’s wild mouse coaster. It’s what one would expect; the only thing notable about it being its former life at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, where it was once themed to Izzy, the totally memorable mascot of the 1996 Olympic Games. I wish I would have known that going in, I’m sure it would have made the experience immeasurably better.
With only two major rides to go in the park, I picked up the pace and made my way to Kumba, the 1993 Bolliger & Mabillard that began the park’s trend of heavy investment in coasters. Kumba was the fifth coaster created by B&M, and surprisingly, one of only five of its traditional sitdown models. It also boasts a few firsts, with the first dive loop as a singular element, and the first set of interlocking corkscrews. Much like Montu, I’ve read a lot of hype about Kumba, and I’m happy to say that a lot of it is true. The 135-foot curved drop seems a little slow at first, but hits a blazing speed at the bottom, leading to a nice float in the middle of the vertical loop. The dive loop is spectacular (probably up there for me with Kraken’s), and the zero-g roll leads into a neat little flat speed section with a hump before heading up into the cobra roll. After the mid-course brake run, the train runs through the interlocked corkscrews, through a tunnel where you can tell just how incredibly fucking loud this coaster really is, and into an upward helix back into the station. Kumba is still pretty smooth for a twenty-five-year-old coaster, especially one in a park with year-round operation. Whatever Busch Gardens is doing to maintain this, they’re doing it right, it’s easily one of the best coasters in Florida.
I wasn’t a total stranger to B&M Dive coasters, having ridden Valravn at Cedar Point in its opening year. I thought that Valravn was a solid “okay”, but apart from the vertical drops, something about it failed to excite me. So here I was, curious to see if Sheikra was any better. Sheikra starts with a steep lift hill followed by a holding brake at the edge of a 200-foot vertical drop, an Immelmann loop, and a brake run into a second 138-foot vertical plunge right into a tunnel. The final element is a splashdown into a pond, where aside from acting as a low-key braking system, scoops attached to the back of the train send massive plumes of water through the air to soak the surrounding midway. (And yes, the park puts up signs warning people, and no, no one seems to pay attention to them) It’s not that dynamic on the ride, but incredibly fun to witness from off-ride. I enjoyed Sheikra quite a bit on its own merits, it’s fast and big, and the drop is pretty harrowing when you’re just hanging there at the edge over dead space. Valravn may have a more intricate layout, but where Sheikra owns Valravn all day is in the category of restraints. Valravn uses the newer vest-style B&M restraints, while Sheikra features the old style of OSTRs (over the shoulder restraints). The vests on Valravn were so tight that they neutered any serious airtime from the drops, but there is no such issue on Sheikra, allowing a lot of wiggle room on the way down.
I took a little internal polling to see if I were willing to swallow my shame for a credit on the Air Grover junior coaster, realized how I would look, the way I do, standing alone in line for a children’s ride, and kept moving.
Still having a drive to Kissimmee, dinner, and a few stiff drinks at Disney Springs ahead of me, I decided to take my leave of Busch Gardens Tampa. All in all, I was impressed with what I saw of the park, with animal exhibits and shows taken into consideration, I probably could have spent all day here. The park looks great, too, with a lot of care shown to cleanliness and landscaping. It may be a while until I get back to Tampa, but yeah, I’d come here again.
As my time at Disney for the next two days was quite a bit off the norm for me (meeting up with a big group of friends and first-timers), I’m going to abandon my usual blow-by-blow report and just present a few random thoughts that came to me having not been at the Mouse for almost two years. Besides, no one wants to hear details about the number of stores an adorable six-year-old girl dragged me into to find the perfect Tinkerbell pin, how many times I said “Sure, I’ll take one of those”, or how much time I may or may not have spent in front of funhouse mirrors in Dinoland USA.
Normally, I’m a big proponent of staying on Disney property, I like the sense of “magic” and all-over convenience (especially with Magical Express if I’m flying into Orlando). For a short trip, Pop Century is usually my go-to, but if I have a little more time, I’ll usually take up at Port Orleans Riverside. But this trip was quick and dirty, so I did things the way I used to in the old days, staying cheap in the middle of the heavily touristy area of Kissimmee.
When it opened in 1971, Walt Disney World changed the face of tourism in Central Florida forever. Hotels and motels, restaurants, shopping, and even other smaller-scale attractions sprouted up, all with the intent of getting a piece of the action that the Mouse had brought to what was essentially shitty swampland. Although the massive size of the Disney property ensured that these establishments were kept far away from the parks’ gates, as the World grew, so too did the spread. Today, large chunks near the edge of Disney property on Highway 192 (Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway) are taken up by tourist traps of varying quality.
I’ve spent a pretty fair amount of time on 192 over the years, and although the major chain hotels, restaurants, and retailers seem to do okay for themselves, I’ve seen some serious turnover among the independent businesses. One year, a building may house some sort of low-rent 4D theater, and the next time you’re here, it’s gone like a ghost, out of business and replaced by something called “Machine Gun America”.
(And I really wish I were kidding about that.) Blindingly lit gift shops advertise their wares in huge letters (T-SHIRTS! GIFTS! DISNEY!), trying to catch the eye of that family from Pennsylvania driving around looking for “Universal Animal Studios”. Indoor flea markets advertise their air conditioning as an attraction, and feature a depressing array of proprietors, each in their own kiosk, in what seems like endless rows. One sells vape pens and pewter statues of dragons, another hundreds of styles of off-brand sunglasses, another hitter boxes and drone helicopters. These people don’t give a fuck about Pandora or Hogsmeade, either buy a Confederate flag belt buckle or keep moving, dammit.
It’s a very specific and unique kind of tourist trap. It doesn’t have the classic feel of a California pier, the warm and woodsy aura of the Wisconsin Dells, or even the claustrophobic crush of parts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It almost feels transient in a way, as if you wouldn’t be surprised to wake up in your hotel one morning and find that the all-you-can-eat lobster place next door just picked up and moved off its foundation during the night. Add to that scores of drivers from different states in cars that aren’t theirs and no goddamned idea where they’re going, and you have an absolutely chaotic mess. And I slept three nights in a 41-dollar suite behind a gift shop shaped like a gigantic orange and loved the hell out of it. But I think I’ve earned at least Pop Century next time.
Pandora – The World of Avatar
Pandora is the newest land to open at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a twelve-acre themed area based on James Cameron’s Avatar. Unlike most new Disney offerings, where massive crowds are the norm at first before settling down to their intended capacity, the hordes wanting to see Pandora haven’t really thinned since its debut on Memorial Day weekend 2017. Since I’m the kind of well-adjusted individual who pays more than a little attention to an amusement resort almost 1200 miles away from my front door, I knew there were only three ways to see Pandora without investing multiple hours standing in line. The first was Disney’s Fastpass, but even if I managed to snag one, it was highly unlikely the time would be convenient to my movements. The second was to hit it just before park closing, where the act of waiting is somehow more mentally tolerable. As both of my evenings were going to be spent at the Magic Kingdom, this too was out. That left the final option: be there before everyone else.
Disney loves money, your money to be specific, so you know you’re early to a park when the parking toll plazas aren’t even open yet. With the sun still nowhere in sight, I cleared security and walked up to the main gates at 6:15 in the morning, fourth in line. The third was an old friend, the man known as CDK, a now-Florida native who spent a fair amount of time in the trenches of Chicago independent pro wrestling. We hadn’t seen each other in years, and we spent the wait catching up and talking shit about wrestling, theme parks, and coasters. Almost immediately after my arrival, the lines behind started growing, and by the time the gates opened to start letting us into the first parts of the park, the lines were thick with hundreds, as far back as the eye could see. Sure, being at a park at 6am, two full hours before opening, isn’t for everyone. But for the limited amount of time I had, it was well worth it.
So, Pandora. The story here is that it’s several generations after the events of the (first) film, which nicely explains why the Na’vi aren’t actively trying to slaughter the hordes of humans that pack their habitat day and night. Here, human and Na’vi work together “because conservation”, allowing people to explore this wondrous alien world. And wondrous is a pretty good word for it, as Pandora is deep and rich in its theming. It’s an alien landscape to be sure, but with just enough familiarity to elements (trees, flowers, rockwork) to make it seem plausible that it exists. The two headliner attractions are Flight of Passage, a next-generation flight simulator ride that mimics the feeling of riding on the back of a Banshee, and the Na’vi River Journey, an indoor boat ride that takes guests through a nighttime Pandoran forest. Most visitors to Pandora are there for Flight of Passage, but the River Journey experiences pretty big waits most of the day due to its smaller capacity and proximity.
The River Journey never dropped below a 70-minute wait during my visit, time I wasn’t willing to invest to find out if the main Animatronic was working or not. But due to my early arrival, I managed to get on Flight of Passage with very little wait, and it’s undoubtedly amazing. Individual motorbike coaster-like ride vehicles move forward into a gigantic Omnimax projection screen, and the vehicles move and pitch in synchronization with the ride film, a harrowing flight through several of Pandora’s natural environments. All the usual hyperbole applies to FOP; the theming, visuals, ride, and sound are all top-notch, and it would be easy to dub it the best flight simulator in the game today. It’s full of nice little touches, such as bladders near your legs that inflate and deflate to simulate the Banshee’s breathing. And the sensation of slowing down as your Banshee comes in for a landing is something I’ve never experienced on a simulator before, the minute movements to simulate the deceleration caused by the wings were amazing. Similar technology is rumored to be used in Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars land due to open at Hollywood Studios in 2019.
And truly, Galaxy’s Edge is probably a big reason that Pandora exists. Avatar seemed like a weird choice of a franchise to go all in on a few years ago, and at the time, a lot of people thought it was Disney’s knee-jerk reaction to the success of the Harry Potter themed lands, just up the street at Universal Orlando. And while I think that’s at least partially true, I think Disney wanted to use Pandora as a test for certain elements that will be present in Galaxy’s Edge. To maintain as much immersion as possible, Pandora doesn’t sell traditional Disney merchandise in its shops, nor do either of the two attractions feature traditional marquees (or even the Mickey shaped head on the MagicBand contact stations). Galaxy’s Edge is rumored to be similar, going even deeper by having guest interactivity be a big part of visiting the land. To sum it up: it looks great, Flight of Passage is spectacular, and I’ll probably end up riding River Journey sometime in 2023.
Disney’s Half-Day Studios
Like most of you, I’ve heard more than my fair share of lies or untrue information (“That Republican senator has your best interest in mind”…”No, it’s just me, there’s no other guy”…”Don’t worry, Frankie knows how to book a wrestling show”) But one of the straight-up silliest ones is “Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a full-day park.”.
I really don’t want to shit on DHS. I’m a sucker for the old Hollywood style of architecture on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, The Tower of Terror is easily a top five attraction for me, and Baseline Tap has an awesome cheese and charcuterie platter. But at this point, there is no way that this park is worth a full day’s attention (or admission honestly, but we’ll get into that in a minute). The sites for Galaxy’s Edge and the soon-to-open Toy Story Land have made large amounts of land in the park into construction zones, and the closure of the Great Movie Ride last year with little to no advance notice didn’t help. Not counting shows and interactive exhibits, DHS has four headlining attractions these days (Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Toy Story Midway Mania, and Star Tours), and when one goes down as Toy Story did during my visit, the effects can be felt throughout the park. Disney’s quick fix seems to be aggressively ramming Star Wars down our throats, as the Jedi Training show for kids is mobbed from park opening and Captain Phasma leads a parade of First Order troops down Hollywood Boulevard what seems like every eight minutes or so.
So why not charge less admission for less than a full park? Seems simple, right? Two reasons that would never work: the logistics of doing that while a majority of visitors are using Park Hopper passes would probably be ridiculous, and for Disney, charging less for less would open up a whole new interpretation of what’s worth what, and there is absolutely no way they’re interested in sticking their hands into that beehive. Besides, it doesn’t matter. This time a year and a half from now, DHS is going to look like a Tokyo subway train, and you’re going to be fondly reminiscing about “only” waiting 45 minutes for Muppet*Vision 3D.
Happily Ever After
I’ve been to the Magic Kingdom once in the daytime in the last twenty years, and that was only because I had a flight out that evening. To me, it’s much easier to tour the most visited theme park in the world more efficiently after dark, when a healthy portion of families with children have already called it a day. It also doesn’t hurt that lighting makes an already beautiful park even better, especially on rides like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the PeopleMover. Some folks are surprised to find that I don’t really give too much of a shit about the park’s nighttime fireworks spectaculars, and a lot of the reason is logistics. A good portion of Illuminations at Epcot is easy to see from pretty much anywhere around the World Showcase Lagoon, and I usually see the show while walking, drink in hand. Fantasmic at Hollywood Studios has a dedicated theater, which makes for a comfortable waiting experience. And I hear that Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom…well, it exists. Waiting for Magic Kingdom fireworks usually entails finding a spot with a good view of the castle, and then holding that spot down for an hour or more while strangers with varying levels of hygiene try to occupy most the space that you’re already standing in.
Happily Ever After, the fireworks and projection mapping show that debuted in May of 2017 has changed my mind on that subject. I’d admit that I didn’t know much about the show before seeing it in person; filmed versions of fireworks are usually pretty useless, and I wanted to see if the show would surprise me. And it did, Happily Ever After is the absolute best nighttime spectacular I’ve ever seen. Technologically, it’s a marvel; the projections on the castle are rich and vivid, doing everything from creating an underwater world for The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo, to erecting the castle from children’s blocks for a Toy Story sequence. The fireworks and pyrotechnics are the usual incredible Disney quality, but frequently interact with the projection show (for example, Merida from Brave fires an arrow off the castle that seamlessly turns into a singular firework that aims for another shaped and colored like a target). A few films get their own short individual musical segment (Moana, The Princess and the Frog, but surprisingly no “Let It Go” from Frozen), while other songs (“Love Is An Open Door”, “Go The Distance”) are used as a medley for other character appearances. The selection is a little weird in spots too, featuring a song from Hunchback of Notre Dame, and two, count ‘em, two selections from Tarzan. But hey, it’s a nighttime show in 2018 that features Scar from the Lion King and Hercules carrying a dead Megara out of the Underworld, so I’m cool with weird.
Happily Ever After ticked all the boxes for me; the show itself looked incredible, and the music and flow repeatedly hit me in the feels. I will now stand there for an hour or more, drinking from a ginger ale bottle that’s totally just ginger ale, in order to see this show. Hell, in ten years when they finally retire it, I’ll likely fly down for the last showing.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t indulge my inner cynic and note that Mulan, The Lion King, The Incredibles, and Wreck-It Ralph are all featured, and all coincidentally have either remakes, live action adaptations, or sequels on the way. Oh, well. Disney’s gotta Disney.
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.
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.
The last time I was near Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville, it was 2010, and I was at a rabbit breed show at the adjacent expo center. The park had been closed and shuttered early that year, and between grooming Lionheads and Angoras (and not winning shit because we didn’t have a Florida White), I was forced to spend three days wistfully looking across the parking lot at coasters that I couldn’t ride. But not this time.
Like a true coaster dork, I was at the entrance to Kentucky Kingdom WAY early, like nearly 10:00 for an 11:00 opening. (So early, in fact, the parking gates were unmanned, allowing me to sail through nine bucks the richer.) The ride in from Chicago was pretty prickly, from having to listen to a teenaged couple screaming at each other at a gas station in Merrillville, to the spotty storms that speckled the windshield before turning into a full-blown rainstorm. That same rainstorm was now pelting Kentucky Kingdom on Opening Day, so I parked (second car in the lot), put on my wet weather gear and headed for the gates.
The ticket booths opened at about a quarter to eleven, along with a list of outdoor rides that weren’t going to be open as long as it was raining. The list was exhaustive, everything from the Huss Enterprise to the park’s brand new Rocky Mountain Construction coaster, Storm Chaser. These rides, the paper went on to claim, would open an hour after the rain had stopped. I checked the Weather Channel app. Nothing but a gigantic green glob. Fuck.
The gates opened, and the rain seemed to really be keeping people away. There couldn’t have been more than a hundred and fifty people in view from the front gate, and there was no manic rush to anyone’s favorite, just a slow and wet dissemination into the park. I was almost soaked to the bone already, and with no hurry to get to what would be a collection of closed rides, I decided to take my time and walk the park at a leisurely pace.
Kentucky Kingdom, to put it simply, looked great. The buildings were clean and vibrant, and existing landscaping was being added to, including a nice little feature where some newer plants had small signs with scannable smartphone codes to learn more about said vegetation. Several of these exhibits were right up against the edge of the concrete, making me wonder how well they’ll survive the trampling crowds of summer that are right around the corner.
I walked damn near every inch of that park for the next few hours, in a rain that ranged from a slow and steady patter to a grey sheeted deluge. True to their word, nothing outdoors was running, save for some sporadic cycles of Thunder Run, Kentucky Kingdom’s sole wooden coaster. I got in line, after all, it was running, and I’m a credit whore. My first ride on Thunder Run was akin to driving behind a poorly-maintained gravel truck, as the rain became stinging cold projectiles after the lift hill, making it damn near impossible to asses my surroundings. I can honestly say I had no fucking idea what was going on, and not in a “night ride on the Beast” kind of way. A second ride with sunglasses held tight to my face was more revealing; good speed, a slightly unconventional layout, and pretty comfortable trains. Also, it allowed me to scratch one more off the list for my “Dinn Challenge”, my personal quest to survive all the company’s operating wooden coasters, brought about in 2010 when Cedar Point’s Mean Streak basically gave me cancer.
I dried out inside with a passable pulled pork sandwich, got soaked again seconds after exiting the restaurant, and dried off again in the Angry Birds theater, which featured a pretty lively “5D” (ugh) movie with motion seats that looked like the recliners at a pedicure salon. Somewhere around two o’clock (and having seen just about every part of the park), I decided to just park my ass near the line for Storm Chaser, the park’s brand new Rocky Mountain Construction steel coaster, and the main reason I was soaked to the bone in Kentucky on a Saturday afternoon. The radar looked like it was close to clearing up, but at the rate it was moving, the rides might not open until closer to closing time, if at all. I had a contingency plan, as my out-of-state admission included the next day free. If all else failed, I could hit the remaining coasters tomorrow morning before the hour drive to Holiday World. I just really didn’t want to do that.
Luckily, the rain cleared soon after, and the queue for Storm Chaser opened to a raucous cheer from the crowd of about two hundred. I had made line friends with a few families of enthusiasts and a pair of ride ops from Kings Island, and none of us were ashamed at losing a little of our minds as the first empty train cycled through for testing. After about five cycles, the station opened. We were about to get our fix, a first public train ride on the world’s newest RMC.
Storm Chaser, in a word, is insane. Near the back of the train, the barrel roll dropdown was a forceful spin that almost seemed a bit alarming until it straightened out at ground level. The camelback hill that followed may be my favorite airtime ever, and there was air all over this thing…in the 140 degree stall, in the return run that went right over the entrance to the ride plaza…everywhere. After a helix and a weird bank, the train almost crawled into the brake run, and the whole train and station broke into applause. As we came into the station, we spotted Ed Hart, the park’s President and CEO, and the man basically responsible for returning Kentucky Kingdom from the dead two seasons ago. He seemed to look pretty happy, even when half the train began bowing to him in reverence as we rolled in. And I didn’t just participate, I kinda suggested it. Okay, I started it.
The waiting crowd had absorbed into the queue, and faced with a short line, I hopped in again. Every time I would ride, the line would get shorter, and eventually by the fifth ride, I was able to literally walk up to an empty gate. The fifth was my first at the front of the train, and the initial barrel roll dropdown taken at a slower speed takes your ass way out of that seat. The air that followed seemed almost as forceful as in the back of the train, the entire ride is intense no matter where you sit. It’s just an absolute blast throughout, and is now easily one of my top five steel coasters.
As much fun as walk-ons to a first day RMC was, there were still two other coasters in the park to ride, and lines were sure to be almost as non-existent. First up was Lightning Run, a Chance Hyper GT-X coaster that was the first big addition for the park’s 2014 reopening. Lightning Run doesn’t look terribly imposing; it’s only a hundred feet tall, and the bright blue track kinda reminded me of Arrow designs from the 70’s. This ain’t no Arrow though, it’s a sick little piece of work with a great first drop, plenty of air, and a ground-level slalom run that is as fun as anything I’ve ever experienced. This thing is an underrated gem, and I have no idea why more parks haven’t bought this model.
I justified the final coaster as having to ride a piece of history, as T3 was the first Vekoma SLC (Suspended Looping Coaster) in the United States. SLCs (or “Vekoma hang-and-bangs” as some refer to them) seem to be all over, but this would only be my second after Hangman at Opryland. T3 had always had a reputation of being one of the rougher SLC installations, and apparently Kentucky Kingdom listened, and refurbished the track and replaced the trains in 2015. I’m sad to report that it didn’t help too much. The new trains looked and felt great (with a lap restraint and straps in place of the coaster’s usual rock hard OTSRs), but the ride itself is as shuddery as hell, which is a shame, because the layout is actually pretty intense. The final middle finger from T3 came as the train pulled into the brake run, and I realized that the once comfortable lap restraint was now crushing my thighs and didn’t let up until well back in the station. Yeah, thanks for nothing, T3.
I hit Storm Chaser a few more times, and decided to call it a day, wanting to get an early start toward Holiday World tomorrow. The ride to my hotel was interesting, with a terrifying bridge over the Ohio River (my second of the day, two too many), and the sudden appearance of a junked-out Ford Probe that blew past me at at least 120 mph. If you ever wanted to know what happened to your old car, it had three more owners, and then ended up on a Kentucky freeway. I got settled in my room, grabbed a chicken sandwich from the McDonald’s next door, and was promptly asleep by 9pm. Solo road tripping…it’s a nonstop party.
The weather cooperated the next morning, blue skies and sun, and I was at the gates of Holiday World a little past 10am. Holiday World is known for having some of the friendliest employees in the amusement industry, and that was on full display that morning, as the park’s computer systems were having problems. It didn’t seem to be much of a problem for them, though, as gate attendants were swiftly recording ticket information by hand,keeping the lines moving quickly. The e-ticket on my phone gave the poor girl at the head of my line slight pause, but within 30 seconds, a manager was there, took a picture of my ticket with his phone, and wished me a happy day. At some parks, I’d be there till noon.
The good press on Holiday World is dead-on, this park was superb. Aside from the employees, operations at everything from the coasters to the food service was fast and efficient, and the park was clean…like, Disney-level clean. My first stop was The Raven, the park’s CCI wooden coaster and a perennial member of most enthusiast’s top 25 lists. The smallest of the park’s three wooden offerings, the Raven was by no means the weaker brother. A surprisingly steep drop and a turn into a hill led to a wickedly forceful curve at the edge of a lake that seemed to go on forever. The track then twisted into a heavily forested area with a few strong hills and turns low to the ground. I’m a sucker for a wood coaster in the woods (hence my love for the Beast despite those goddamned trims), and The Raven is a coaster that could only exist at Holiday World.
Despite the beautiful weather, the park wasn’t that crowded, but I still wanted to check off everything my list, and headed to the far back of the park to ride Thunderbird, the park’s 2015 B&M Wing Coaster. I was pretty familiar with this model of coaster having ridden two of the four in the United States (X-Flight at Six Flags Great America…yay, and Gatekeeper at Cedar Point…sorta yay), but Thunderbird featured a 62mph launch into an Immelmann loop instead of a lift hill. It’s a big difference. I hadn’t felt anything like the hang out of the loop on any of the others, and the dive that leads to the vertical loop is crazy fast and low to the ground. The rest of the ride consisted of two overbanked turns in opposite directions (allowing both sides of the train to have an above and below the track experience), a zero-g roll, a keyhole dive through a barn, and a slow inline twist into the brake run. I’ll need another ride on X-Flight before making up my mind (probably this week), but Thunderbird might be my favorite Wing Coaster. Gatekeeper still reminds me of that British au pair I went out with in the 90’s…nice to look at, but man, there’s just nothing there.
And now, The Voyage. Since my first night ride in 2008, The Beast at Kings Island has been my favorite wooden coaster (which should be evident, considering I’ve already mentioned it several times, and this is not a Kings Island trip report). The Beast wasn’t the fastest or most forceful wooden coaster I’d been on, but its incredible layout and length made it my favorite wooden coaster experience.
Sorry, The Beast.
The Voyage is the most intense wooden coaster I’ve ever experienced. The 154 foot first drop is an incredible float in the back of the train, and series of towering airtime hills led into the first of many tunnel drops, one so deep the air temperature noticeably dropped. The train is still blazing fast into the disorienting turnaround in the woods, complete with a wicked sharp 90 degree banked turn. Heading back, the train slowed (and sometimes stopped almost completely) on the brake run before diving into a tunnel for a triple down that got progressively darker. By the time the train burst back out into the light, you’re back at ground level, and that train was fucking flying over those hills. And it didn’t get any less crazy approaching the station, a dive into a fly-by of the lower queue felt as fast as anything in the first half of the ride. Make no mistake about it, this ride will beat you up if you’re not ready for it, but the way it maintained speed and force throughout the entire thing made it worth it. I was able to move seats several times due to any empty station, but even I needed a break after my fourth consecutive cycle.
I decided to cool off in Gobbler Getaway, a Sally interactive dark shooter ride themed to…Thanksgiving. Really? Huh…okay. The first indication that I was in for one fucked up experience came in the empty queue, which featured a pretty solid animatronic of an elderly woman who explained the ride’s story. Apparently, some negligent farmer had somehow let all of his turkeys escape just before Thanksgiving, and he needed our help to round them up. It was it this point that I noticed that the old woman was carelessly waving around what looked like a laser pistol. But not to worry, she explained that it was a “turkey caller”, the device we’d use to help this lazy breeder save his business, or holiday, or whatever. The ride vehicle featured two rows of two seats, each with its own tethered turkey caller, and a welcome sign that sported a few targets so you could see how accurate your aim was before the insanity started. (Each shot was accompanied by a gobbling sound that got a lot less cute the more you heard it.)
Visually, the ride was straight-up nuts, as one would expect in something that combined Thanksgiving with blacklight paint. As you hit targets (no indication of where your shot went, but the turkey guns were pretty accurate), the usual assortment of dark ride shooter stuff happened…clocks spun, things tumbled from precarious positions, and turkeys popped out from behind their hiding places (where they were hiding to avoid being slaughtered, mind you). The ride mindfucked you a bit at the end, in a scene where a Pilgrim family sat down to a holiday feast, and pulled the lid off a piping hot…pizza. “We just couldn’t do it!” said Papa Pilgrim. Slow clap…well played, Holiday World.
After a bacon cheeseburger at Goblin Burgers (no actual goblin involved, sad to say), I did a few rerides on Raven, Thunderbird, and Voyage, before deciding to cool off on Frightful Falls, the park’s log flume ride. After a long and dark tunnel to open the ride, the flume headed out into a nicely landscaped area on its way to the lift. As I sat back and enjoyed that smell that every water ride in the world seems to have, what seemed like every speaker in the whole park exploded in that horrid shriek siren that precedes a severe weather warning. Two more shrieks, then…silence. I looked up at the sky, it was still blue and sunny. Weird.
Things got a lot clearer as my log ascended the lift. Over the trees behind The Legend (which was still closed for retracking), the skies were a soupy black-grey, and did not look pleasant. After the drop and return to the station, the queue was completely empty, and the ride op informed me that everything outdoors had been shut down due to lightning in the area. The storm wasn’t quite here yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Going against the flow of guests leaving the park, I headed back toward Gobbler Getaway. If I was going to ride out another goddamned rainstorm, I’d rather do it in a whacked-out dark ride.
I wasn’t the only one with that idea, as the queue was about a quarter full. During the next fifteen minutes, I had to tell the hyperactive teenage boy in front of me to stop stepping on my toes no fewer than three times. As fate would have it, we were in the same car; he in the front row, me in the back. And simply because I’m an asshole, for the entirety of the ride, as he raised his gun to shoot a target, I dead-eyed it over his shoulder and nailed it before he could. Unaware that I was even in the same vehicle, after about thirty seconds, I had him sputtering and swearing to himself, and a minute in found him banging his “stupid fucking gun” on the edge of the vehicle. I’ll give him credit, though, he never quit trying, even after I racked up a score of 1600 at his expense (“Master Turkey Caller”), while he walked away with zero. Eat it, kid.
Monday nights always had something for me. It was NFL football for many years, until Vincent K. McMahon decided to start running a little WWF weekly show called Monday Night Raw. Good or bad, Raw always managed to deliver some form of entertainment, be it Vince’s feverish (and futile) attempts to make Lex Luger a star or Psycho Sid bellowing that he didn’t know shit, crybaby. After I removed myself from the business in the early 2000s, I watched with less frequency, catching the show here and there, and sometimes watching the Spanish language rebroadcast if in the mood for something more surreal.
By the time 2010 rolled around, I was catching a Raw maybe once every 3-4 months. And after Shawn Michaels put himself out to pasture, I just pretty much stopped watching. Oh sure, I still keep abreast of news, but that’s mostly to be in the loop when someone keels over and dies (Umaga, I’m looking in your direction…southwest and down). Last week I had it on as a background noise/ colorful moving artwork, and was delighted to see Randy Savage featured in a Make-A-Wish video and the fact that our friend Goldust is still employed.
So I got to wondering…what would my impressions of an entire Raw be now? Would I embrace their latest push for a PG product? Or would the absence of such past superstars as La Parka and Aldo Montoya make it nearly unwatchable? I guess there’s only one way to find out. I charge myself with “liveblogging” tonight’s Raw. (This is similar to “Livejournaling” something, but in this case, people are paying attention.)
Note: The following commentary is for mature audiences only, and may contain profanity, questionable statements, and out-of-nowhere references to Dutch roller coaster companies. You have been warned.
Preparation: According to the Comcast guide, tonight’s Raw is summed up thustly: “John Cena joins the Nexus.” Didn’t he do that last week? Maybe nobody knows what’s going to happen on Raw tonight.
8:00pm: Sheamus is now in the entrance video, and we are live in Seattle.
Cena is out (random sign: “C’MON MAN”), and thanks the crowd for standing behind him. He repeats “Never give up”, which so happens to be the slogan on Cena’s shirt. The camera lingers on this, and his Nexus armband. It’s fashion porn.
He recaps the Nexus angle for anyone not paying attention/liveblogging for the first time. He also warns the crowd of how he may have to do some things they may not like. He also may-
Here comes the Miz, along with his Money In The Bank briefcase and someone named Alex Riley. Riley is Alex Wright 2010, and probably wears Ed Hardy on the weekends. Miz touts his position as captain of Team Raw at the upcoming Bragging Rights pay per view, when-
And then here comes Wade Barrett, and it’s good to see that the E still loves interruptions. Barrett says nothing will get in the way of Cena in his corner at Bragging Rights. Wade..no one was talking about that. Your fears are unfounded. Riley now has the stick, and his nebulous statement falls flat.
An e-mail from the General Manager? What is this? How long has this invisible boss been in place? And since when is Michael Cole such a heat machine?
He announces Miz vs. John Cena…tonight! Barrett looks like a 50s greaser. Barrett takes offense to Miz, and pegs him with a sharp headbutt. Shmozz up, and Riley and Miz put boots to Barrett until he motions for Cena. Cena cleans house, and we head to a commercial like someone’s life defends on it.
I think I will have to purchase Dead Rising 2. And these marching folks commercials from Burger King have their hearts in the right place, even if the execution is sometimes slightly off.
Ted DiBiase and Maryse (?) are in the ring, and Goldust stealing the MDC last week is shown. R-Truth informs me it’s time to “get crunk”, and he has a poor man’s Fergie with him. (Later note: Eve, I guess?) Truth’s theme music is more Puddle of Mud than Public Enemy…are the crunching guitars there so the white folk can enjoy themselves without guilt?
I’m not into calling the moves of the match (I had more than enough of that during LWF commentary), my recaps are more retrospective. Some would call me lazy. I’d be fine with that.
DiBiase preps for the Million Dollar Dream Street…or whatever, but distracted by the music of Goooooldust. Ted loses concentration just long enough to get beat by R-Truth. Goldust looks great. What a superb gig that guy has; he has to stay healthy, but not worry about his abs. Plus, he gets to paint his face and say creepy things in front of thousands of people.
John Morrison looks better with facial hair. And his Hitman-like glasses giveaway is nice. Tyson Kidd is the opponent. Kidd comes out to a modified Hitman theme, and has a ridiculous spork of hair. Morrison looks like he’s improved since last I saw him, his movements seem more fluid. Kidd is an unknown quantity for me. Suddenly-
Too bad for Kidd, though, as he falls prey to-…well, it’s something I’ve never seen two human beings do before.
Black Nexus, Red Nexus, and Anime Nexus are talking to two gentlemen who the crowd knows, but I don’t. Here’s Barrett, advancing his own angle. Black Nexus feints interest in fighting Randy Orton, but Anime Nexus gets the honor. They use their real names in reference to each other. Wait for it…there. I’ve already forgotten. Ortunga? Tortuga?
Forty minutes in, and doing this is a lot harder than I though. I haven’t had to “pay attention” to wrestling for a while. One passable match, one good to very good one. That seems like a pretty good average so far. I have no idea if this is rare for Raw.
Santino Marella is still one of the funniest-…holy shit, what is up with Zack Ryder? No stick time for Santino, I hope they haven’t turned him into a utility wrestler. Ryder has a license plate logo on the back of his trunks. For this reason alone, I wish harm upon him. Santino hits the Cobra (?) for the win, and a spot on Team Raw. A jacked up version of the Fresh Prince’s Karyn Parsonshits the ring, and advances some storyline with Santino.
Holy shit, that Snickers commercial with the plastic face woman is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. If I have the energy when this is done, maybe I’ll look for a photo to post. Or maybe not, but I guess you already know if I did or not.
Anime Nexus is accompanied by Black Nexus and Red Nexus for his match against Randy Orton. I hope Randy still looks like our cat Tennant, with his massive head and tiny eyes. Whooo, Orton is over, and WWE Champion apparently. I get the feeling that three Nexus folks will be of little problem to Randy Orton. We’re still calling him the Viper, right? Has he stopped crapping in people’s shoes? Can we joke about that now?
Orton is much leaner and browner than I remember. Black Nexus and Red Nexus get sent to the back, like Kevin Nash did at Wrestlemania X. That’s Ten, folks…not the mysterious “Wrestlemania X” videotape we saw on the shelf while watching Wrestlemania IX.
Thank Gawd, commercials. Rest for my fingers, and a few squares of British Cadbury Dairy Milk. The American version pales in comparison.
We’re back, and Orton crushes Anime Nexus with stomps. Lawler really sounds like he’s being a little cunty tonight. I like how the Nexus guys all wear the armband. As much fun as I make, I really kinda like the Nexus thing. Barrett’s a strong leader, and they’ve got a nice variety of guys. I guess there like, what…7 originally? Good call in paring it down a bit.
They’re giving this one some time, we’re past the 9 o’clock hour. If Orton is being Orton, the RKO will come out of-
Holy shit, did he stiff that kid with that forearm. Aw, does he still hear “voices in his head”? Did they ever get him “help” for that anger management problem he freely admitted years ago? THERE’S your RKO out of nowhere after a not/quite/full 450 splash. Barrett and Orton should be a good match, not enough to get the PPV, but good nonetheless.
Remember, still to come…Cena vs. Miz for the captainship of Team Raw, which Cena will win, but be forced to give up his spot at 10:04 pm by Wade Barrett. Sheamus vs. Daniel Bryan Danielson. Do I even know what this guy looks like? I don’t think so. I am a terrible professional wrestling fan.
According to the graphic on the Bragging Nights PPV commercial, I’m going to see Kane face off against Mark Henry. Hoo boy, that’s weak. (Note: Don’t get on my shit. I know we’re not going to see that, matchups are subject to change.) When a film (like say…the Big Show’s Knuckleheads) is touted as having a “limited release”, it’s not a good sign. Show seems like a real affable guy, I kinda feel sorry for him taking part in this. Maybe the script made it look better. In other news, someone got paid to write the script for this.
Oh, that’s Daniel Bryan. Okay. Oh shit, is Michael Cole doing some sort of anti-Bryan heel schitck? Is this something ongoing? Because if it is, it sucks. Sheamus’ skin is brilliant, it’s beyond white. I kinda wanna get up and pee, but I don’t want to miss Daniel Bryan do something that’s going to save wrestling and send me off to buy Ring Of Honor DVDs with Carter’s PayPal account. Did Sheamus put Triple H “out”? I wondered why we hadn’t seen the King Of All Nepotism yet.
Bryan’s pretty good. Michael Cole is inconsistent; he talked shit before the bell, but calls the match like it’s all business. Cole doesn’t have a strong grasp on his character. Sheamus wins with some kind of big kick, and now Cole gets shitty again. What happened to Jim Ross? He was just fine. So Sheamus is on Team Raw, and I realized we haven’t seen any crappy Divas bits yet. I…don’t like that. That means they’re yet to come. Must they?
R-Truth is in the back with Cena, and sends him mixed messages before teasing that there is another way out…”Just quit.” Quit what, exactly? Nexus? The WWE? Wrestling? How about quitting talking to R-Truth?
Great, a promo for the Tribute To The Troops. Show for troops in the sand: awesome. Sending Mark Henry: nice, I guess. A probable upcoming shot of some asshole I used to know in a Kevlar helmet: not so hot.
Alright! The fifth member of Team Raw will either be Evan Bourne or…oh, wonderful. Look who got drafted to Raw. Tonight, apparently. About a minute nine later, and your Team Raw consists of R-Truth, Morrison, Santino, Sheamus, and CM Phil. CM Phil destroys Bourne outside, and some drunk clearly yells “ECW days!“. And that’s funny, because he spent quite a few ECW days sitting across from us.
I watched that Undertaker-Kane main event from the Hell In A Deli PPV, and it…it was such shit.
Goddmanit! That Snickers commercial again! Did this terrify no one during any phase of conception? The director, writer, designer…all of em, should put their names on that little shred of horror. They need to be held accountable.
Whoa, Mark Henry isn’t here…personal matters? Natalya is in ring, name drops “Uncle Bret” 24 seconds in, and taunts “Laycool”, who I guess is Layla and Michelle McCool. She’s the one fucking the Undertaker, right? She’s pretty awful on the stick, and now she’s lecturing everyone on HD. Layla (who sounded like Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny the first time she spoke, now apparently has British in her) is just as bad. Laycool goes to leave, and the rest of the Divas I don’t know are blocking the ramp. Cole helpfully starts listing them off…Bella Twins, Gail Kim, Eve…thanks, Cole. Why couldn’t Bret Hart’s music signal the arrival (via wormhole) of 1997 anti-American Bret Hart? That’s wrestling I want to see. This Divas stuff (shockingly) seems to have gotten worse during my hiatus.
Chris Pike and Denzel Washingston in Unstoppable, about a runaway train? Is GMB already on Fandango?
One hour 50 in, and I’ve got the main event to go. I wouldn’t want to do this every week, but it was certainly different. It’s like writing live commentary, and it’s completely different from anything I’m used to doing lately. I can’t stand the Smackdown vs. Raw video game series, if it ain’t No Mercy, I don’t give a shit.
Here’s our Main: Cena-Miz with the leadership of Team Raw on the line. Is Smackdown doing something similar? Crowd seems oddly divided, and I don’t really see why. Cena’s predicament of being under Barrett’s thumb is about as sympathetic as can be, and he hasn’t done anything classified as “evil”. Why would you react to him negatively? I’d be yelling “Hey, you can find a way out of this predicament! Think it over on the drive to that house show in Spokane!”
I don’t know, Red. I don’t think I like the “energy shot” version of you.
Miz has gotten “serious” while I’ve been away. I guess it works. They fight outside, and it’s 10pm. Let’s see how the 2010 Raw works the overrun time. Eeeewww…the Key Arena. It probably still smells like Supersonic failure. You Are Unable To View John Cena, and here’s the part of the match where guys trade finishers. Miz’s little buddy (looks back earlier in draft)…Alex Riley is holding the Money In The Bank briefcase in a what would be a horrible future vision.
The two guys I didn’t know from before (Somebody Harris? Somebody McGillicutty?) interfere, and Miz gets the win and the largely ceremonial position of Team Raw Captain. Post match, Cena goes at em, until stopped by Barrett. Face to Face, until the Invisible GM decrees that Those Guys vs. Cena-Orton next week. Now (bear with me, this is all going fast) Barrett says if Cena loses next week, he’ll (uh, Barrett) induct Those Guys into Nexus (Creating, I guess Pudgy Nexus and Weasely Nexus.) I guess that’s bad. Barrett calls Cena spineless, yellow-bellied, and so on. Cena grrrrrits his teeth.
Barrett turns his back on Cena, continuing to taunt his “employee” for no reason. There’s four sides to a ring, why doesn’t Cena just leave? Why would you stand there until well after 10:10pm getting carved up like that?
Cena leaves at 1o:11pm…no, Barrett! Don’t stop him, just let him go.
Oh, never mind. Barrett: “Until next week…you can’t see me!” He then does that thing with the hand waving. That’s fucking golden. The crowd seems more annoyed than angry, and Barrett smiles as the 2010 WWE copyright logo comes up.
So what’s my assessment of America’s Favorite Sports Entertainment Show On Monday Nights? The Barrett-Cena thing is pretty good, and my only hope is that they make Cena do more and more malicious things before the eventual blowoff of this feud. The selections for Team Raw are kinda eclectic, and Heel Michael Cole sucks. That’s what I’ve got.
Jets are up 12-0 on the Vikes in a rainy Meadowlands. Looks like I made the right choice tonight. Poor NFL announcers…it must be hard to kiss Favre ass for three hours plus when he’s just not winning football games.
For those of you not in the know, the New England Patriots play the New York Giants in National Football League action this coming Saturday night. With a win, the Patriots become only the second team in NFL history to finish the regular season undefeated, joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
One could argue that the Patriots potential achievement is even more impressive than that of the Dolphins; the regular season schedule in 1972 consisted of 14 games (as opposed to today’s 16), and parity is widespread in today’s NFL. Win or lose, it’s an impressive regular season run, and one that will most likely lead to the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl title come February.
But a serious problem loomed as this game approached. The league’s NFL Network cable station held exclusive rights to broadcast the game, and with the station only available to 40% of America’s households, a majority of the nation would be unable to see this potentially historic match-up. Sure, the game would get broadcast on regular TV in the Boston and New York markets, but who the fuck wants to live there? (Boston and New York residents: please leave hateful comments below this entry.)
Luckily (?), our nanny state swooped into action. Having solved all of the nation’s serious problems, our beloved senators and congressmen “pressured” the NFL to allow the game to be broadcast on regular television throughout the country. The game will now be shown on not only the NFL Network, but CBS and NBC as well, the first time in history a triple simulcast has taken place.
Everyone gets to see the game (Patriots 34 Giants 14, btw), and no one has to be subjected to Saturday night reruns of Law & Order and CSI: Muncie, Indiana. This is great news, right?
One can only imagine the seething anger of executives in the shadowy and dank tunnels of NFL Headquarters. Their plan to lock up the post-Thanksgiving football viewing audience…foiled! And they would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling lawmakers. If you listen closely, you can hear them now…
“How dare they force our hand in such a fashion? They should be going after those vampires at Comcast, not us! So, they want the Patriots-Giants game, do they? Well they’ll get it, and more than they bargained for. Unleash…THE GUMBEL!”
This is the ultimate tool of revenge of the NFL Network. The droning and annoying Bryant Gumbel, worse on the microphone than a thousand PL Meyers on Xanax. Sure, CBS and NBC, you can show the game. But it’s going to be played under NFL Network rules, and those rules include this insipid hack and his inane commentary. The only thing that makes NFL Network game broadcasts watchable is Gumbel’s co-announcer, former Cincinnati Bengal receiver Cris Collinsworth. And as intelligent and likable as he is, it’s still not enough to offset the complete vacuum of entertainment that surrounds Gumbel like the rings of Saturn.
What to do? Your options include watching the game with the sound off, creating a three-hour custom music soundtrack for the game (I suggest Lily Allen’s Alright, Still, Depeche Mode’s Violator, and the greatest hits of Phil Collins), or get drunk on rum and bellow out your own commentary.
I’m not a big fan of the government pressuring a private business to do something for the “good of the people”, and in this case I believe their well-intentioned interference did more harm than good. I’m sure if most citizens knew they’d be subjected to Gumbel’s Kermit the Frog-like delivery for three hours, they’d take a pass on watching the game. Effectively, our government has launched a terrorist attack on its own people, akin to exploding a chlorine-filled hot air balloon over Times Square on New Years’ Eve.
It’s 11:30am on a Friday morning, and I need a cigarette.
The “smoking canopy” at my workplace is located out back, near the loading dock. It’s a grim little location, filled with rusting skeletons of welding tables and vehicle husks that will never see the joys of production. But at least there’s a rickety wooden picnic table, and a free-standing ashtray that implores smokers to “park their butts”. Occasionally, I’ll run into a co-worker out there, and discuss the ineptitude of management or the shaky state of the Chicago Bears offense.
But not this time. It’s just me and my Marlboro Menthol Ultra Light 100. Until I spotted “The Solicitor”.
From across the parking lot, I watched him approach; a middle-aged black man dressed in a black shirt, black pants and white striped tie. He carried under his arm a shabby-looking box with some sort of papers jutting out the top. In the twenty five seconds or so it took him to make his way from the street to me, I waited, wondering what business he could possibly have with me.
“Hey buddy, how you doing today?” he asked, jutting out his hand. I ignored it, but kept my voice friendly in an attempt to confuse him.
“Good, good.” I replied. “And you?”
“Not bad, not bad.” he said. “Little hot out today though, isn’t it?”
“Listen,” he said, pulling something out of the box, “I’ve got something I want you to take a look at.” He thrust toward me an oversized Scooby-Doo coloring book. Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly something I was expecting. I took it out of pure curiosity.
“It’s a…coloring book.” I said, stating the obvious.
“It sure is.” he said, as if my statement required affirmation. “Great for the kids, and if you look in the middle…” He reached out, and flipped the book open to the center page. “…you’ll see that there’s a full-color poster inside with Scooby and the whole gang.”
“Yeah, it…sure is.” I said, continuing the trend of useless dialogue. The poster was indeed full-color, depicting Scooby, Shaggy, and rest of the “gang” clustered together, looking terrified, while being beset upon by a menagerie of every conceivable movie monster. There was a mummy, a werewolf, a zombie, Frankenstein’s Monster, and a vampire complete with starched shirt, cape, and Euro-trash medallion.
“That’s something, isn’t it?” he said cheerfully. I didn’t exactly understand how a bearded thirtysomething with a cigarette in his hand was supposed to be impressed by the centerfold of a children’s coloring book.
“Yeah, something alright.” I said.
“Now, they’re selling these down at the Warner Brothers Store for twenty bucks,” he said, launching into the “hard-sell” portion of the conversation, “but I’m willing to let these go today for ten apiece.”
I found this statement a little debatable, seeing as how the Warner Brothers Stores went out of business roughly six years ago. So, as he had launched into his “hard-sell” mode, I figured it was time for him to spend several uncomfortable moments with CMVenom.
“Don’t you think this is a little odd?” I asked, pointing at the vampire on the poster. “Y’know, that they would use an undead creature in a book marketed toward children?” If the question rattled him in any way, he gave no indication, and continued to stare at me with a goofy smile affixed to his face.
I decided to continue.
“I mean, technically, a vampire is nothing more than an undead creature. A reanimated corpse if you will, usually by some sort of necromantic magicks. I’m not sure that’s the kind of things you should be thrusting toward kids.”
Instead of debating this completely logical point with me, he decided to pretend I hadn’t said a goddamned thing. “It’s a beautiful book, that’s for sure. Hours of enjoyment, great for the kids…and only ten doll-”
I handed the book back to him. “It’s nice alright, but I’m afraid I don’t have any use for it. No kids. Sorry.”
He actually looked disappointed. “No kids? No nieces, nephews, cousins? Nobody who’d like this?”
“Nope, sorry.” I said. “None of those, and no kids for me and the wife.”
He raised and eyebrow. “Sounds to me like you and the wife need to…you know…start getting busy.”
“Oh, we get busy alright.” I fired back at this wholly inappropriate commentary on my sex life. “But she really likes it in the pooper. Little hard to make babies that way, right champ?”
I’d never seen the color drain out of a black man’s face before.
“Yeah…uh…” he stammered, quickly shoving the coloring book back in his shoddy box. “…well, uh…you have a good day…” He was already retreating while sputtering out the last words.
“You too, dude!” I bellowed cheerfully. “Good luck with that!”
It took him roughly twenty five seconds to approach, but only about fifteen to leave. I’d like to think I did good work today.