Happy Valley Beijing

Beijing, China – Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

The Happy Valley chain of theme parks are not that good. Yet I think better of them as the years go by, not because they’re constantly improving themselves, but because as more home-grown Chinese competitors enter the marketplace, the Happy Valley parks continue to look more competent and professional by comparison. For all that they lack in original design, quality attractions, or efficient park operations by international standards, they’ve actually proven themselves to be fairly decent by Chinese standards. Yes, they’re essentially just anchors for giant real estate projects, but so are most other domestically produced theme parks, and the Happy Valley parks seem to have entered the market early enough that they now respect themselves as market-leading park operators striving to create a self-sustaining enterprise. The parks have just enough of a lifeblood to them that you get the sense that they really intend to be in the amusement business, and aren’t just some frivolous prestige project or a money laundering front.

Of the lot, Happy Valley Beijing is likely to be the best overall. As the second park in the chain opening in 2006, it seems it benefited from the lessons learned from the debut of the Shenzhen Happy Valley four years earlier, but before OCT realized they could get a better return on investment by streamlining the scale and immersiveness of their themed environments seen in Chengdu, Shanghai, and others.1 The major rides are nearly all from European and American manufacturers, dating from just before the Chinese-made counterparts became more competitive in the late 2000’s. A B&M flying coaster and an S&S launched mega-coaster are pretty solid additions by any park’s standard, and supposedly more Swiss steel is coming in the near future.

That said, while the themed design certainly has scale in places, particularly in their Atlantis area, what’s missing is virtually any meaningful detail or even experiential integration with the theme. There are some beautiful vistas, but no reward for up-close exploration. The attractions are virtually all outdoors, some nicely decorated but none with a story to tell. The lone dark ride that does have something resembling a concept barely fits with the land outside. Shops and food service have absolutely nothing to do with the theme. While it may look like a theme park, the pacing of a day’s visit and level of engagement with the park is virtually identical to a standard amusement park. Ride operations are notoriously slow, meaning the midways can look empty yet the queues can still feel interminable. Chances are good that a major ride will be closed for “repairs”, as it was on my visit where Crystal Wing was out of action. One pleasant surprise on my visit, however: multi-train operation is theoretically possible if demand calls for it.

Yes, the Extreme Rusher was running two trains when I first arrived, a bit of a shocker that may have only been the second time I’d see that at a domestic Chinese theme park.2

The queue, however, was very full, due to the ride being located near the front gate of the park, and virtually every other worthwhile attraction further in the park not scheduled to open for up to a couple hours later. Since I arrived a bit late, I hedged my bets that it wouldn’t go down later in the day and decided to get the jump on some of the other coasters that were getting close to opening.

To get to the rest of the park, I have to go through the Ant Kingdom kid’s area. This part of the park seems to have aged poorly, with much of the colorful scenery in need of a repaint and the largest attraction, the Golden Horse-built spinning coaster named Harvest Time, seemingly left to rust away for the past couple of years.

Ant restaurant. Ant. Restaurant.

Creepy yellow A Bug’s Life rip-off ants with green teeth.

In the back of the park is the Shangri-La themed area, based off Tibet. Think of this as the Chinese equivalent of what an old west theme zone would represent for an American audience.

Golden Wings in Snowfield is a Vekoma Suspended Looping Coaster. While normally that’s nothing to celebrate, given that Golden Horse and Beijing Shibaolai Amusement Equipment have completely wrested market share for inverted looping coasters in China since the 2010s, being one of the few remaining Vekomas is a real mark of quality.3

A small line had already formed before the coaster was scheduled to open at twelve noon. This would still be much better than queuing up after it had already opened.

After being let in through the long queue, I was on the second dispatch of the day, in the back row. (I’ve found that Vekoma SLCs are actually smoother in the back, I believe because the trailer hitch that provides extra stability is in the rear of the train, instead of in the front like most other coasters.)

The coaster is pretty meh. Not terribly rough, but the gigantic foam shoulder harness pads that ginger kiss both ears do it no favors. The layout, while more rare than a standard SLC, is in its own ways much more vanilla, with slower pacing and a pretty uninspired element sequence that feels like it was designed by box-checking. (Loop? Check. Cobra roll? Check. In-line Twist? Check? Helix? Check.)

Shangri-La also contains these twin towers I definitely did not ride. Their English name is “Twin Heroes”, but I have no idea how that fits the Shangri-La theme.

The land does, however, inexplicably contain this Haunted Grove which combines a Tibetan Buddhist temple with western Halloween party decorations. There was no line when I walked by, so I figured why not?

Please do not attack and abuse our staff. Well, if you say so…

The warning need not even be posted, as there were no staff monsters in here today. Just a surprisingly long, dark series of halls containing every prop and lighting effect available from the local Halloween Superstore.

They even bought the Halloween Superstore itself! Oddly, this walkthrough attraction is the only one in the park that I can recall where you exit through the gift shop. I’m curious how many Halloween masks they sell each day, or if you’re allowed to wear it in the park?

Somewhere nearby is Drafting Through Fairyland. I’m told the name sounds quite a bit more lovely when translated to Mandarin.

Wandering along the backside of a large central water feature reveals some good views of the park’s signature attractions, as well as a giant pyramid marking the entrance to the Lost Maya zone.

Apparently the pyramid is home to Mayan Restaurant.

The biggest attraction in Lost Maya is Flight of the Phoenix, although despite this sign it appears to be more officially known as Jungle Racing. (Jungle racing?)

Again the scale of the themed objects is quite impressive.

But once you start getting down to the level of queue details, the room for improvement becomes more obvious.

Jungle Racing is a standard layout Vekoma Mine Train with double lift hills. Unlike Extreme Rusher, Jungle Racing had only one train in operation which meant a nearly 45 minute wait. Fortunately they were relatively fast at loading and dispatching the train once it finally returned to the station.

On the plus side, the queue at least winds around parts of the coaster layout, giving me some opportunities to get some decent action shots.

Almost there…

In-station theming effort. At least they tried… until they stopped trying.

This coaster is more enjoyable than the inverted one, although nothing memorable is found along the route to make it worth repeating if the line is of any length. The themed elements are big but do little to elevate the actual experience. An Adventureland version of Big Thunder Mountain sounds cool, but Jungle Racing isn’t it.

Next is Maya Catastrophe, which creatively depicts adventure scenes of volcanic eruptions and floods.

Basically it’s an outdoor special effects show, apparently with a cascading flash flood effect as a centerpiece. I’m guessing the white tent is not part of the show, indicating there were no showtimes scheduled for today.

At least these guys are still working, whatever they are.

And there’s this dude.

Also in Lost Maya: Fiefdom, sponsored by Coca-Cola!

Here’s an attempt to create a thematic transition zone from Lost Maya to the next area, Aegean Sea.

Mayan pillars frame the entrance to the Greek coastal town themed land, because clearly no one studied sightlines when deciding where to place their theming budget.

The must-see in this land is Happy World, a Small World copycat dark flume ride. You can tell by how many advertisements for it they’ve plastered on the marquee that it must be good.

We begin in the Temple of Zeus, complete with an ancient Greek HVAC system.

A ride layout posted in the queue, for your reference.

There is no way that these queue switchbacks have ever been used.

For your safety: VIDEO!

So the ride starts off still somewhat relevant to the Greek theme, and it’s even stylistically different enough from Small World that they could probably build it in the States and not get sued for infringement. So far so good.

But then this Scary Clown of Doom gobbles us up…

And holy cow, it literally becomes the Duff Gardens beer flume ride from The Simpsons!

Hey kids, you know what’s fun? BEER!

Next we’re in… Christmas?

And now we have… Ancient Egypt.

At this point I was getting really confused what kind of theme these scenes have in common. Sure, it’s great that it’s not another damn “children of the world unite in song” ride, but I was really racking my brain how any of these scenes had any relationship to one another.

It wasn’t until later by carefully studying the signs that I realized, “oh, it’s a ride about global holidays!” The beer was for Oktoberfest, the Egyptian section was apparently for an annual Nile river flooding festival, the animals are for… an animal party, I guess? It’s still pretty incoherent, but at least there’s now some attempted logic behind it.

And honestly, it’s was actually all pretty good. Every show element was clean and maintained, the art direction is generally all original, and there’s even some innovative scenic design that even the Disney Small World rides don’t have. Among all the Small World rip-offs I’ve been on, Happy World is far and away the best.

Yet even if speaking Chinese somehow made the concept clearer (I don’t think it does), this ride still has nude murals as the parting image you see as you unload. Yup, still at a Happy Valley park.

The rest of the Aegean Sea zone has some very large sculptures…

And this considerably well-themed shoot-the-chute ride called The Journey of Odyssey.

Most of the other Happy Valley parks theme their shoot-the-chutes as an industrial shipping container pile, so this Greek coastal village is a noticeable step up (even if there’s still nits to pick with scale and placement).

Wow. That’s probably the biggest wave I’ve ever seen from one of these rides.

A Trojan Horse themed Top Spin, not operating today. I guess it’s kind of clever, but given the scale of these themed pieces, they seem to do little to enhance the actual ride experience.

Themed details as I return back towards the front of the park.

For some reason the front entry zone is the most half-assed in the entire park. Why is a gigantic and unused skate park show located in an ancient ruin covered in graffiti? Why does this area look like an ill-conceived attempt to bring a CityWalk-style district inside the park gates? Why does the only form of in-park transportation look like it’s probably taken down at least one or two pedestrians? And what the hell is Fanta-Sea?

Fortunately, it looked as though my gamble to wait until later in the day to ride Extreme Rusher paid off. It was still running two trains, but the line had dwindled to less than a half hour as everyone who did the coaster first thing in the morning had moved on to the rest of the park.

With that, I guess I shall line up courteously and of my own initiative!

Unfortunately, as I got close to the station, the ride went down for about fifteen minutes so they could remove the blue train from the track. Of course. I was still able to get on pretty quickly afterward, as a single rider grabbing a seat in row four or five.

When I got off, the line hadn’t yet grown much more, so I immediately tried for a second lap. This time I tactically managed a front row ride, mainly by responding with a quizzical blank stare when the ride attendant tried to call me up as a single rider for seats I didn’t want. Sometimes it pays to not speak the language.

After missing out on Happy Valley Shenzhen’s Bullet Coaster back in 2011, Extreme Rusher managed to be my first of S&S’s large scale four-abreast launch coasters, currently popular in China and nowhere else. I’m not sure why they haven’t sold elsewhere, as I was really impressed by the quality of Extreme Rusher. Smooth, comfortable, thrilling, and good capacity,4 it reminded a bit of an improved version of Knott’s Berry Farm’s Xcelerator, both being non-looping, lapbar-only launch coasters in the 80mph range with a signature vertical element followed by a couple sweeping back-and-forth curves. The big improvement is that, unlike Xcelerator, the rest of the layout is just as good as the first element, if not better.

The compressed air launch is smooth and breathtaking, more intense than most LIMs or LSMs, but more natural feeling than some hydraulic cable launches. The twisting incline that immediately follows is incredibly powerful; I feel like recently the emphasis has been on heartline twists around vertical elements, so getting a steeply banked maneuver that throws you hard around a curve while climbing nearly vertically is a powerful sensation mixing positive, lateral, and z-axis forces that I haven’t experienced at this scale since the Pepsi Max Big One. The drop on the other side isn’t vertical, but it’s still a tremendous experience that makes use of an underwater tunnel to extend the freefall even further.

The next element, called a wave turn, looks odd, yet it ended up being my favorite of the entire ride. From most perspectives on the ground it appears to be a way over-extended banked curve, leading me to wonder if it wasn’t just a giant dead spot. However, through a tricky bit of geometry that isn’t fully visible from most angles (an aerial view from the Flying Island would later reveal how it works), it actually manages to provide a pop of floater airtime around the top while banked at 90 degrees, in a way that’s so awkward and feels like it should never work… but it does, just perfectly. That it managed to catch me off-guard (it’s been awhile since that last happened on a coaster) made it all the better!

Up next is an inclined spiral leading into another straight drop full of airtime, and unlike the surprise floater curve before it, this one does exactly what it says on the packaging. Basically a smaller repeat of the first maneuver, I won’t say no to more negative G’s. The final element was the one I had most been looking forward to: a reverse banked S-curve. A sudden attack of forces that serves as a hard punctuation mark to the entire experience, this one features a pop of airtime mixed with a heavy jolt of lateral G’s. Given how much modern coaster engineering tries to avoid lateral forces at all times, it was nice getting an element that seems intentionally designed to throw us from side-to-side as much as possible. From there a final banked turn returns us to the magnetic brakes. While like most high-speed launch coasters it’s all over much too quickly, Extreme Rusher is definitely among the best of the genre and the jewel of Happy Valley.

It’s also a photogenic ride, as here are some more of the many shots I took of Extreme Rusher:

Extreme Rusher is located in a section of the park called Happy Time, which apparently features a racing theme and despite being located right at the main entrance is apparently a newer addition, which shows from the overall poorer standard of theming, mostly concrete, steel, and supergraphics.

The area is also home to this Zamperla Hawk looping flat ride, called X Extra Power.

After completing the park’s outside loop, the last area to visit was the park’s central Atlantis themed zone.

Atlantis is by far the most spectacular themed environment ever built in a Happy Valley theme park, and perhaps among any domestically-produced Chinese theme park. From a distance it even recalls some of the grandeur of DisneySea’s Mysterious Island (I’m sure that’s where most of the reference imagery came from for building this), although like most aspects of Happy Valley’s themed design, it lacks details up close, or even any attempt to communicate a basic story. It’s there because it looks pretty in photos:

Unfortunately, I was already aware that the B&M flying coaster Crystal Wing was going to be closed.

While disappointing, Crystal Wing has the exact same layout as the Six Flags Superman flying coasters that are uniformly “okay”. This one is renown among enthusiasts for its elaborate mountain/castle theming, and while I agree it looks impressive, from seeing videos it appears to offer little real interactive substance to affect the ride experience; in most cases you’re still looking down at the grass and gravel between the themed structure’s foundations. With news that a B&M speed coaster and junior inverted coaster are on the way, I’m sure I’ll be back to give this one a try eventually.

Hopefully when I do get back, I don’t have to wait in this queue of hell.

There’s a massive stunt/effects show looking arena that I have no idea what it’s called or even if it still plays.

Atlantis is also home to this Zamperla Energy Storm ride called… Energy Storm. It looks incredibly disorienting and I was tight on time, so I passed.

I did however elect to try the Energy Collector, a Flying Island observation ride that were once popular in the United States and have for some reason become a thing for China.

It’s housed within a very elaborate structure for what’s just an off-the-shelf ride with, again, no apparent story or objective to justify all this theming.

There’s one rule for Energy Collector: No skipping.

Free-roaming and no plexiglass, wire mesh, or netting to obstruct the view. Could barely ask for a better observation ride to take pictures from, which is exactly what I did:

And with that, it was time to exit. Through the gift shop, naturally.

Next: Shanghai Disneyland

Previous: The Forbidden City

1 comment to Happy Valley Beijing

  • Footnotes & Annotations
    [1] Circus Land(s), anyone?
    [2] The first, if I recall correctly, was on the mine train at World Joyland in Changzhou.
    [3] Notice that B&M have only built more “unique” model coasters in China such as Wing Coasters, Dive Machines, or Flying Coasters? That’s probably because when a Chinese park operator puts out to bid on a more generic class such as “inverted coaster”, they virtually always go with whoever is the lowest bidder, regardless of quality. As Chinese firms continue to “research” more coaster styles, expect European & U.S. imports to slowly cease. A strange case of quality getting worse with time and competition, at least until Chinese firms can match their international counterparts. Given the economic protections of the Chinese market, there is little incentive for them to do so.
    [4] Has any other major launch coaster in the past decade seated more than 20 riders per train?

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