Legoland Windsor

Windsor, Berkshire, England, UK – Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Today would be an exciting day. Not only was it my first theme park in the United Kingdom, it would also be the first park in all of Europe that I wouldn’t be visiting alone. After the first week of moral philosophy classes in London I found two expatriate companions willing to accompany me on a visit to Legoland Windsor for the day, with Windsor Castle thrown in on the side. The sun was already high in the sky when I woke up early that morning (I knew Scandinavia had endlessly long summer days but wasn’t aware that England was also similar; whenever I saw a movie in which a character wakes up at 5:30 or 6:00am in broad daylight I figured that was the work of lazy grips or DPs, but now I realize that could very well be accurate), I now just needed to gather Dan and Mark to commence the day.

“I think I’m still a little drunk from last night,” Dan croaked after I shook him from his deep slumber.

“So, that still means you’ll be ready to go to Legoland in ten minutes, right?”

(Cue the long pause as I hovered over him expectantly)

“Uh… sure. Let me just take a shower first.”

A true moral philosopher, never one to let a pal down. Fifteen minutes later the three of us were out the door and on the way to London Waterloo to pick up our rail and admission tickets to Windsor. South West Trains offers numerous packaged deals for daytrips on their lines, so when we got to the ticket office we tried purchasing our tickets to both Windsor Castle and Legoland. This seemed to confuse the receptionist somewhat whose terse clarifications confused us even more (are we really the first people to have ever thought to do both Legoland and Windsor Castle on the same day?), and when we boarded the train we each only carried a ticket for Windsor Castle with advice that Legoland tickets are purchased at the gate.

Almost instantaneously after arriving at Windsor & Eton Riverside (which includes a nice view of the Battersea Power Station on the way out of London; the Pink Floyd fans got to geek out momentarily after looking out the window and seeing an unexpected sight) we found ourselves staring up at the imposing exterior of Windsor Castle. After handing over our tickets and being patted through security, we were granted exclusive access to view that same exterior from a different vantage point: the interior courtyard. Much picture taking of the green grasses and landscaping arranged in front of tall grey brick walls and towers followed, as we all meanwhile longed for a more descriptive guide to tell us how important each of these turrets were. Maybe I was partly spoiled by the Palacio Real in Madrid, but somehow I expected the tour of the world’s largest inhabited castle would be a bit more impressive; in reality, I discovered that the fact that it was still inhabited by royalty meant that tourists sure as hell weren’t going to go anywhere on the grounds where they would be getting in the way (I guess that’s what Buckingham Palace is now for, which we never got around to seeing). And so we joined the queue for the sole fraction of the castle that was open to visitors.

It started with Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House (the secondary apostrophe making it a rather appropriate title, given it was of such a scale that the term ‘dollhouse’ would seem a pejorative), continued into a room filled with letters and drawings from notable individuals, and concluded with the state apartments, where numerous suits of armor and other expensive collectables were contained, and the ‘royal style’ of interior decoration was in full force (the goal is to use so much gold leaf and busy, lacy designs that it pounds the viewers visual processing abilities into oblivion). Stepping back out into the bright English sun, we concluded that both St. George’s Chapel and the daily guard change don’t occur on Sundays, and with nothing else indicating for us to see Windsor Castle was apparently already through with us about an hour and a half after our arrival (and we were quite thorough in our inspection of the place, I imagine if in a rush one could finish in less than 45 minutes). A leisurely pace around more of the upper ward and we soon found our exit. After a quick lunch of hot roasted pork rolls we ventured on board the bus to take us to the front gate of Legoland Windsor.

We decided to try going to guest services first to see if we still couldn’t get the South West Trains promotion applied to our tickets. I suspected we were only allowed one discount admission per rail ticket, but advised Mark and Dan not to voluntarily relay that bit of information when recounting the story. I myself needed to go to the season pass center to get a Merlin Annual Pass, as I calculated based on my planned future activities it would be slightly more cost-effective than buying tickets individually. I exited the booth, bank account a little less intact, but now the proud owner of my first ever foreign season pass… proof I was becoming a true cosmopolitan globetrotter! Even better news, when I reconvened with Dan and Mark, they said that after explaining our story not only were they able get the originally promised discount, they were given tickets discounted even further to only half the normal price! Now I didn’t feel quite so guilty about dragging them along to what was in effect a children’s park.

I’m not entirely sure if I knew what to expect from Legoland. I’ve enjoyed my time at other traditional children’s parks like Chicago’s Kiddieland, Dutch Wonderland or Paris’s Jardin d’Acclimatation. Given that it was an internationally recognized branded park operated by the same group as Alton Towers and Thorpe Park, I imagined that freed from the need to sink several million pounds into building large scale engineering projects every few years to keep the customers returning I would see a park that was very modernized technologically, immaculately clean and fresh paint everywhere, with tons of attention to detail paid to every attraction and structure with lots of carefully crafted landscaping and gardens amid wandering pathways that invited one to explore every nook for unexpected Easter Eggs. I think this was a fairly accurate judging criteria that matched my expectations with what Legoland’s declared objectives would be, but even by those standards I felt the park was somewhat unsuccessful.

We began our day’s activities where most stories do: in an area known as The Beginning (which is also where our story would end… holy shit, how meta is that?), that included the Creation Centre, a small museum of sorts for a few Lego creations, many replicas of famous British artifacts. Dan and Mark both seemed quite pleased to be here, I nearly had to drag them out of the building with reminders that there was still more to do, time was limited and crowds appeared to be robust. And so we continued.

The first thing that seemed a little odd to me was the fact that beyond the entry plaza there was a very long, narrow, seemingly ad-hoc midway that snaked down a steep hillside to get to the rest of the park. A strange infrastructural decision to greet and bid farewell to guests with, I had to wonder if the park had been converted from a different original property or had relocated the entrance at some point in its history. When we got to the bottom we encountered our first real attraction in the Land of the Vikings: Viking’s River Splash (don’t you love the creative allusions and double meanings Legoland puts into all of their naming?) Despite some hesitancies concerning the degree of wetness we might endure (Dan had thought to bring his copy of Jane Austen we were supposed to be reading over the weekend), I insisted that we should give it a go as European river raft rides generally haven’t been real drenchers and it was likely to be one of the few big rides the park had to offer anyway. A fifteen minute wait (a bit longer than it should have been due to an apparent shortage of rafts) and we soon were careening downstream.

In general it was a fun ride mostly from our attempts to stay dry whenever a passing brick figure threatened to squirt water over our heads and a couple instances where a minor reorientation of position could have resulted in a much more unpleasant dousing than we were somehow narrowly able to avoid. While we agreed on our enjoyment of the experience there was also mutual consensus that the experience need not be repeated. This was also the first time that quality control became a more pressing issue on my mind. Most theme parks use river rapids as a chance to flex their creative themeing muscles, and while there were a few nice Lego set pieces along the way, the ride in general was surprisingly ghetto. Built awkwardly over a hillside, instead of floating through wooded landscaping as it typically the protocol for these rides, it was built over a giant, mostly drained reservoir with 10 foot tall bare concrete retaining walls everywhere you looked. Quite possibly the ugliest flume ride I’ve ever seen, and being familiar with many American parks that title is up against some steep competition.

A spinning tea-cups ride with a spider theme had some appeal but we decided it wasn’t likely worth it for the posted queue. Of more interest were the large Lego arachnids nearby and overhead. This is the biggest appeal of any Legoland park, having the sense of wonderment at being in a make-believe city where everything you see is made out of children’s toys. Of course the actual quantity of Legos relative to other building materials is rather small (at least outside of Miniland), mostly just a few statues or figures scattered around the midways, the ‘lands’ themselves are not made of Legos. The thing I always found slightly dubious was how meticulous and perfectly created all of these Lego sculptures are. The spiders are excellent examples, the arrangement of the bricks into layers conforming to perfectly smooth geometrics curvatures gives this toyland away as a place where adult engineers still rule. The Lego sculptures I remember from my childhood were a much more Dadaist endeavor, lumps of haphazardly formed bricks resembling more closely a primary-colored dog pile than whatever it was I was actually trying to recreate (at least before instruction guides started coming with them, but once playtime involved carefully following directions you were probably ‘old’ anyway).

We found our next ride in the form of the Jolly Rocker, a HUSS Pirate Ship that allowed us entrance on after waiting only one cycle to load, but unfortunately after snagging a row as far back in the gondola as possible the cycle still proved to be one of the weakest I’ve ever experienced in a major amusement park. I know, I know, it’s for kids… but except in the case of toddlers most kids I know go the most crazy for high-rocking boats. I remember a time before I hit double digit when the best thing about these was to see how high off your seat you could get without the ride operator yelling at you to sit down. (“Hey, it’s not me, it’s the ride doing it!”) As we moved into the Knight’s Kingdom, an awkward request of my travel companions was needing to be made.

“Before anything else, would you mind if we try the Dragon’s Apprentice?”

No objections were made against the petite spring green children’s coaster I was gesturing towards (quite possibly because it still represented one of the larger attractions on the map; I was worried after finishing the coasters how much more we would have left to ride that we could still fit in), although I suspect that if it had been disclosed to us at this point that it would be a solid 45 minutes before we were once again free to choose our next activity, even I would have backed down and said maybe later. While in the queue (which really wasn’t that long, only a reminder that kiddie coasters are not built for high throughput capacities) I tried to keep morale high by entertaining Mark and Dan with stories of how I keep track of all the roller coasters I’ve ever been on and this was to be my 346th roller coaster… we were ‘queuing for a cause’, as it were. This talk couldn’t last the full 45 minutes.

In any other context the ride wouldn’t have been worth the wait, although here it actually was one of the more successful attractions of our visit, our two cycles affected by some not insignificant lateral forces with a nice spiraling first drop around a castle ruin. I was greeted with some minor celebratory remarks over hitting the big three-four-six as we made our way down the exit ramp… the fact that it was intended somewhat sincerely made it all the more embarrassing for this coaster credit junkie. (It’s when friends and family start to become drawn into your addictions that you know it’s time to seek help.)

Within a large castle fortress was for us the park’s starring attraction, The Dragon. Now this was finally a bit more like what I was expecting from Legoland, a multilayered, immersive structure and a pretty cool, original ride on the inside as well. From a queue leading us around the upper battlements and then descending into the lower depths, the dark, dungeon-esque loading platform was more ‘serious’ than anywhere else in Legoland, although the presence of a few malapropos toy bricks added the requisite comic relief one expects from Legoland. Best of all, the operation of three trains meant we had to wait not more than two minutes before we had  a front row to call our own.

The Dragon starts out with what I’d call the only genuinely proper dark ride segment on a coaster I’ve ever been on. Most other coasters that try to start with something of this nature usually involve just stopping in a small showroom for a few seconds (Furius Baco), breezing through a short indoor set at 10mph (Blue Fire), or are still behaving more as an indoor coaster than a legit dark ride (Exterminator). Using numerous dark ride tactics such as dramatic lighting as you pass and scenes built to be examined rather than briefly glimpsed, after a minute or two of dark twists and turns (including coming face to face with a large, snarling Lego dragon you could probably touch if CCTV wasn’t likely in effect), we start an ascent back into the sunlight on a tire drive lift.

The first drop is a surprisingly steep one for a family coaster (at least seemingly so for those in the rear seats), we dive beneath a tree and make a long figure eight very close to ground level (sculpted around the track in a manner similar to the Ultimate) before we curve up into another short s-turning lift hill. The train always got stopped briefly at this second crest due to the three train operation and lack of sufficient blocking space at the end of the layout. Greeted with another drop about as thrilling as the first (thanks to a close headchopper with another piece of track followed immediately with an underground tunnel) we emerge for a second ground level figure eight, the excitement generated by the rapid burst of speed and visceral thrills in the tunnel quickly diminishing as our dragon train runs dry on speed and needs to be helped back up to station level with more uneven tire drives.

It seemed we had our first real winner at Legoland, as we unanimously agreed a second ride was in order, this time under walk-on conditions. Mark and I took the very back row while Dan caught up on his Jane Austen in the seat ahead of us. He later regretted not buying the on-ride photo that resulted. We moved on to contemplate giving the Pirate Falls log flume a try, which seemed like the only large-size attraction left for us to try, but the combined observed phenomena of a lengthy queue and wet disembarking patrons meant we couldn’t reach a consensus, and so continued our quest for the next worthwhile attraction.

My map suggested the Laser Raiders interactive dark ride as perhaps our next (and last) ride suitable for grown-ups. We found the queue for this one likewise was overly long (why weren’t more of these people over at the Dragon, that ride kicks ass and doesn’t have much of a wait for it?), and we were generally not appeased by the presence of Q-Bot users who got to skip ahead of us, causing our wait under a hot themed tent area that much more intolerable. This continued a debate over the morality of such line-cutting services (remember we were all in London for a philosophy program discussing ethics and English literature, so conversations invariably drifted towards applying learned moral principles to ridiculous subject matter; i.e., what if you have a Kantian and a utilitarian trapped in the same room and one has to eat the other to survive otherwise neither will, and the utilitarian realizes the Kantian is of greater use to society, does this mean the utilitarian should force-feed himself to the Kantian? Even more vexing: is it ethical to pick your nose? The debate still rages, but I digress much too far).

Anyway, Dan advocated that there was nothing wrong with Q-Bots as the park owns all the resources and so they should decide how to distribute them amongst their guests, while I pointed out that the park is profiting by a burden paid by others, with Mark tending to favor my side. Nevertheless we all agreed that Legoland was exhibiting bad moral character when the queue got held up for nearly fifteen minutes after the attendant had to close a gate to let the miniature railway track pass through (again, bad design choice), and then forgot to return to reopen the gate for us, as after we finished I noted how the large display of onride photos showed at least twenty cars before us had been sent out empty while we continued to wait. Lame.

The ride itself was equally lame, an exceedingly basic Sally laser shooter with the cheap style neon cut-out props and the never-ending pew-pew-pew of guns that fail shoot properly. Despite being the “professional reviewer” of the bunch I wasn’t even the first to comment on this before we had finished, as the low opinion of the Laser Raiders (especially given the time waiting for it) was that patently obvious to all. I’d have thought Legoland to be one of the first places capable of putting on a really good dark ride, but this sadly was not the case.

After we said our minds about the Laser Raiders we suffered a bit of an existential crisis when we realized we had exhausted the list of attractions readily available for the over-52 inch crowd and had no further objectives to fulfill. So we wandered the rest of the park layout over by where I think the old Jungle Coaster used to be before it was removed last year over complaints about the noise and a failed (but somewhat humorous) attempt to silence it. The park seemed to become more crowded the further we ventured, odd considering that the best rides seemed to be in the other direction. While a few other clever interactive children’s rides were found such as a large driving school they seemed not suitable for us. I was later told that the Wave Surfer ride is one of Legoland’s best, which I’m sad to say we neglected to scout out but given our disinclination towards getting wet I think it probably would have been voted down regardless. The long sun and humid weather was starting to get to us… was this England or Alabama we were in, and why is it I’m always hearing self-deprecating remarks from Brits that they’ve maybe seen the sun twice in their natural lives when I got more bright and clear days over four weeks in London than I did over four months in Rome? Anyway, we settled on the last big tick on our checklists, Miniland. Rather than say any more words, I’ll just let this photo slideshow sum it up for me. Just a note, my camera was running low on batteries so I ended up with a very conservative collection of 42 photos compared to what I otherwise normally would have taken.

After a solid half hour we finished the day trying to get what use-value we could out of the Imagination Center, an area that would again hold more interest for younger audiences, not that you’re ever too old to stop and get an ice cream (oh wait, the prices are ridiculously expensive and none of the nearby tables have been cleaned in the past couple hours… never mind). The Imagination Theatre 4D movie seemed promising so we caught the last show of the day, a rather odd short featuring voiceless Lego actors in a medieval siege on a castle using some of the worst CG animation I’ve ever seen that only added to the kitsch. The odd thing about these “4D” movies is how much dramatic tension can be generated even despite some pretty lousy story-telling just through the promise that the fourth wall separating you from the events on screen will be broken at some random time by a jet of water pointed at you from a currently unseen source. This makes the dramaturgic arc peak not at the rescue of the princess but at the random shot of charging footsteps through a puddle. And it does a surprisingly good job at it too, the mere sight of standing water in a scene achieving a Freudian level of suspense akin to the sight of oranges in the Godfather films.

The theatre itself was just a final example of Legoland going cheaper than one would expect of a park with their stature and success. Rather than state of the art sound systems and giant screens with individually padded seats we were looking at a small white screen draped over the front of what appeared to be a repurposed ampitheater sitting in rows of hard wooden benches that lacked even a seat back. Maybe we just didn’t see the better parts of the park and the large crowds impeded full enjoyment of those areas that were most pleasant, but I’d still have to say that as we boarded the bus back to Windsor, regardless of what I was expecting from Legoland I expected something a bit classier than what was actually there. Of the three of us I was possibly the most jaded towards the park, as both Dan and Mark seemed satisfied with the day. Having friends along undoubtedly made my time at Legoland infinitely better than it would have been made had I done my usual routine of visiting a park alone only focused on getting as many rides and photos during the day a possible, and I thank Dan and Mark for their companionship.

Rather than jump back on the train we took the time to explore more of Windsor and Eton, crossing the Thames to have a look at Eton College before getting a dinner at an Indian restaurant by Dan’s suggestion… my first exposure to Indian food (much more popular in the UK than the States, undoubtedly due to certain historical associations between the two nations) and I found it generally quite agreeable with my palate. By the time our train departed Windsor for London Waterloo against the golden sun any further conversation had been exhausted as we were all, to borrow a local term, completely knackered.

Next: A Weekend in Ireland

Previous: Foggy Thoughts: Notes from my Studies in London

Jardin d'Acclimatation

Paris, France – Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Before flying across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, I secretly believed that somehow being in Europe would feel different. Not just in differences in the surroundings, customs, food or even the language. If I were to close my eyes while in Europe, there would still be some mysterious, indescribable energy coursing through the fabric of existence that would make that immediate sensation different than if I were still back home in North America. A split-second’s logical reflection on this idea would of course render it ridiculous to consider, but it was hard not to look at a map of the world and, upon realizing just how incalculably massive a distance I’d be from anywhere I had ever been before, to think for just a little bit that perhaps there’d be a slight change in the average spin directionality of an electron, or a minor disturbance in the in the otherwise uniform Higgs field that permeates the universe. Being told ad nauseam by my university’s Office of Study Abroad about the massive cultural changes I’d experience most likely didn’t help to assuage those feelings, even though it was pretty obvious they just wanted to stress the point that they don’t want the student population getting blacked-out drunk on the streets every weekend like they would in the states, especially considering for most of them, a semester abroad is basically equivalent to a four month long party.

After living in Rome for a little over two months, those feelings have mostly all been dispelled. From the big perspective, I’m still in the western capitalistic world, and although there might be plenty of ‘little differences’, those smallest differences are still exactly the same. The cracks in the sidewalk or the rustling of leaves in the trees, the feeling of a breath of fresh air or the taste of a cheap but decent meal after five hours of walking, and those little ‘ticks’ you can observe people do when they don’t have cultural norms to tell them exactly how to use hand gestures or carry themselves as they walk. For me, it’s that big picture mixed with all those tiniest of details that are most fundamental to understanding reality, the stuff in between are incidental novelty interests more than anything else. Perhaps it helps considerably that I already was incredibly awkward and unsure of what cultural expectations were in the United States, so coming to Europe and finding myself in the exact same situation allowed me to feel right at home. Unsurprisingly, it was the language barriers that would be the biggest problems, and for rather obvious reasons: not being able to properly ask the shop owner a question or figure out what that important-looking sign reads have their drawbacks, although it is interesting to note just how much is communicated through body language and vocal intonations that even when there is no one around to help translate, most of the basic ideas are still able to get across. Perhaps I was just getting too used to Italy and needed to throw myself into another country with a complex itinerary and little time to adjust before moving on all while depending only on the contents of my backpack and my own personal resourcefulness, completely on my own for a week and a half. With that, on Friday, March 19th, 2010, I finished packing my last set of socks into my backpack, slipped my iPod into my coat pocket, double checked my first day’s itinerary, and left my apartment to catch the next train to Rome Fiumicino airport for a 6:00pm direct flight to Paris, France. And so began the adventure…

I arrived in Paris Orly around 8:00, and proceeded to the airport shuttle that would take me to the Paris Metro where I’d get off at Gare du Nord train station, only a short walk from the hostel I had booked for my first two nights. The Sacre Coeur was only a five minute walk away (or at least that was what I was told, the area looked pretty flat and devoid of major Parisian landmarks to me), but since it was raining out and the dome wouldn’t be open at that hour anyway I figured my best bet was to save all my sightseeing for tomorrow and just check into my hostel and find a decent place to eat. I found my room, which was extremely small, barely enough room for the four beds and a small table, but it included a small shower room with a sink and I was the first one there so I got free pick of the beds for the night. Not five minutes later, two of my roommates also arrived. They were cousins about my age visiting Paris together, he from Germany and she from Argentina (regretfully I can’t recall their names). After introductions I found out they needed to find dinner as well, so we ventured off together to find something to eat. Several locations seemed promising, but they were either closing for the night or were far too expensive. We ended up at a kebab stand which was cheap and seemed to offer decent portions for the money. Plus the meal came with French fries, so I was on the right track for sampling the local cuisine, right?

The next morning I headed off on my own a little before 9:00am to be at the Sacre Coeur right in time for the opening of the dome, and because I didn’t want to run out of time there before a tour I scheduled started at 11 at the base of the Eiffel Tower. It was indeed a short walk from the hostel, and much to my delight I found the area was still relatively quiet with only a small scattering of tourists standing around. However I soon discovered one major drawback to arriving this early; as a lone American student traveler, I became too easy of a target for the group of scam artists preying on unknowing tourists near this point of interest. The basic response to this is whenever I’m approached on the street, just keep walking without any acknowledgment. I got through most of them but just as I was in the clear, one of them, in a very friendly and conversational tone, got right in my path to welcome me to the city and introduce himself. I tried to step around but he insisted I listen to what he had to say for just a moment, so I gave in and let him talk. Instead he asked for my right hand to give me a small bracelet. Ah, so this guy is with a charity. I asked who he was with, but instead he kept the conversation going as he wound the bracelet, asking where I was from and if I was enjoying Paris. He told me how he was from Africa and Paris welcomes people from all over the world, whether from Michigan, Europe, Asia or Africa, and to remember the poor people in Africa as I toured to world; and perhaps I should one day visit there. Okay, so is there going to be a request for a donation at the end or is this just a general awareness pitch? I tried to get him to specify exactly what charity he was with but he avoided the question, and as he finished the bracelet he told me to make a wish, and as long as I kept it on and didn’t tell anyone my wish, it would come true. I quickly thought of something so this wouldn’t waste any more time (I wished that none of the coasters I was planning on riding over the next week and a half would be shut down; I can say it now since it didn’t come true anyway), and hoped we were now finished. ‘That’ll be…’ and he mumbled some price I couldn’t make out. Oh. I get it now. Fine he was nice enough and I still figured there was some charity involved so I could maybe spare the two or three euros he changed, agitated he didn’t inform me of this before the transaction. I pulled out my wallet to reach for a coin, and he pointed at some of the €50 bills I had in my wallet. Uh, what? “Just give me one of those and I can give you back a €20”. So it wasn’t €3 I heard but 30. No. Fucking. Way. That actually ended up being his biggest mistake; the whole pitch up to that point was very cleverly crafted, using many of the formal persuasive techniques taught in my Intro to Logic class. But he messed up in his application of the “door in the face technique”, because he presented me with no alternative besides insisting on the €30 for a piece of string. The fact that I couldn’t easily give it back meant I was stuck paying something to get out of the situation, and I gave him a €2 coin and told him that was all I could afford, and then asserted I had to be on my way. Twenty seconds later I realized I shouldn’t have given him anything since I had still been under the impression there was some charity involved, but whatever, €2 would be quite marginal in the grand scheme of the week’s expenses.

Just to run through the rest of the sightseeing activities of the morning and afternoon before getting to the roller coaster part of this report, the Sacre Coeur still ended up being well worth it. It’s free to have a look around the main church area, and the €5 fee to go up the tower offers such incredible views of the city that a trip up the Eiffel Tower would be nearly redundant. Okay, so maybe it’s still a good idea to say you’ve been to the Eiffel Tower while you’re in Paris, but the advantage of the Sacre Coeur was there were no lines or any other crowds up there. Incredible way to start the day, being able to see the entire city laid out in front of you. Here’s a small collection of photos taken from the top:

While I’m not sure if I would say Paris or Rome is the nicer city to visit, the one area that Paris has Rome beat hands down in their Metro system. Rome consists of only two lines forming a giant X across the city, while Paris consists of some 273 x 10^62 different lines, with a station positioned at pretty much every other block in the city. This ended up being extremely useful in getting from the Sacre Coeur to the Eiffel Tower, and as a result I had a bit of time to take pictures while I waited for my bicycle tour to start. The tour was nice and professionally run, although I do think perhaps for my purposes (as a lone American philosophy student armed with only a digital camera and several changes of batteries) I should have chosen something that allowed more time to take pictures and listen to a lengthy narrative from the guide rather than ride around on bicycle from place to place only stopping at the front of the occasional important landmark. A lot of ground was covered which is what I needed since I had only one day to see the city before moving on to Disneyland, and that had to include fitting in a stop to Jardin d’Acclimatation later in the day; plus it included a group lunch break which I needed since I can never decide on a place to eat if I’m traveling just by myself.

I do regret that my plans never allowed me time to actually go into the Louvre or any other of the Parisian art museums, but my plan had always been from the start of the trip to get only a ‘taste’ of Paris so I’d be sure to return someday… and I will open admit here my main motivation for returning is to visit Parc Astérix and Parc Saint Paul when they’re not closed, especially since the first is rumored to finally get a major new steel coaster in 2011. That said, I do realize what I’m missing out on, and look forward to that return visit when I can walk up to a renaissance masterwork and experience that ubiquitous aesthetic experience among tourists where one is so moved by the power of the artwork that they can only think, “wow, I bet that painting is really famous!” (Of course I’m not really that cynical, as I’m aware that there are many other visitors that will actually understand the art, and that when they see it are emotionally overpowered by the realization, “wow, I bet that painting is worth a lot of money!” Hey, at least when I visit a foreign city I’m honest with myself over what I personally want to see and will genuinely appreciate, even if it’s a run-down local theme park.)

After the bike tour I hopped on the Metro and took it to the stop nearest Le Jardin d’Acclimatation, arriving a little after 3:00 that afternoon. For those not aware of what “Jardin d’Acclimatation” is, it’s a gated gardens area very close to the main city center, dating back from the mid-1800’s and has since acquired a moderate collection of family amusement rides including three small (but unique) roller coasters. Admission is less than €3, although you have to pay individually for each ride. I was a little bit let down when I first walked in, as I had been expecting a much more elaborate botanical gardens with a few rides integrated between the displays, but instead it was a bit better described as just a pleasant, tranquil, European style parkground with a few garden and animal exhibits and most of the rides concentrated in a somewhat cheap, carnivalesque corner of the park… complete with your standard, small European park Disney IP knock-off attraction. It was a good place to visit and spend an hour or two, and was unlike anything I’ve come across in the US (amusement parks are meant to amuse us with bright colors and loud noises!), and would recommend it to anyone visiting Paris.

It took me a little while to figure out where to buy my ride tickets since they weren’t sold at the main gates nor at the entrances of the rides themselves (turned out it was at the window of a themed strip of buildings along the back of the rides sections), but after I purchased five I made my first ride of the trip the Tacot Express. This is an interesting little powered coaster from Soquet, and is generally what I’d like to see more out of children’s coasters. The layout starts lower to the ground and uses the powered mechanisms to gradually climb upward as it makes its way around the figure-8 design. After the third curve the train takes a sudden dive down into an unforeseen underground tunnel that provides a surprising jolt for those in the back. The train speeds through the tunnel and then up and around the last curve, where we are then treated to a second circuit.

This was the first of two Soquet powered coasters I got to ride at le Jardin d’Acclimatation, the second being the Dragon, located much farther back in the park away from the rest of the rides and near a small swan pond. I was surprised to find out after my visit that this one preceded the Tacot Express by nearly 14 years; there wasn’t that much discernible difference between the two to me, and they kept it very well maintained with a fresh coat of paint. Placed over some Asian-inspired fountains and gardens, and with a very well-crafted dragon’s head at the lead of the train, while it lacked the surprise tunnel drop of the Tacot Express it wasn’t any less of a coaster. Like Tacot, this one has a double out-and-back/figure-8 that uses the powered mechanism to gradually work up enough potential energy to end with a decent sized drop best experienced in the back row before looping around for another circuit. Again, I really wish more children’s coasters could be designed like this, with an actual aire of class about it rather than just being some compact circular little thing with nothing but moguls for a layout and bright colors with an insipid theme.

The last coaster was their biggest, and unfortunately that meant it was the only ride in the park that required two tickets instead of just one. The Papillons d’Alice is a custom-designed Reverchon Jr. Spinning coaster, but the distinction between this and the full-sized version is a bit hard to tell. The lack of any large drops is the main distinguishing characteristic and the cars are a touch more snug, but compared to the regular production models the lift is about as tall and the ride lasts as long, and as I mentioned this is also an original layout designed exclusively for the park so it gains bonus points for that. With all of that said, it’s probably as well that they didn’t manufacture any more of these because without any large drops and just a series of switchback curves with an occasional dip and the spinning cars, it felt a little more like a flat ride experience than a coaster. But a decent attraction and well-suited for the park, I still have to wonder why a ride themed to “the Butterflies of Alice” has two large eyes with thick black eyebrows pasted on the front of the cars.

Having gone through four tickets to do each of the coasters, I decided to use my last ticket on La Rivière Enchantée, a small flume attraction. There are no drops, no water effects or special scene objects to look at, just a six minute leisurely ride around trees, ponds and the gardens (I noticed a unique species of duck inhabiting the same natural lagoon basin the ride floated around). Where else but in Europe? For some reason there was no one around interested in taking my ticket from me, so I got off with my last ticket still in hand, and decided to spend it on this Kangaroo-like flat spinning attraction they had. Nice pops of air at the top but I wish the ride cycle wasn’t so long since this was one of those that it’s easy to start feeling sick on.

Somehow the two hours I was there managed to pass me by in what felt like no time, so I figured it was time to get a move on and explore the rest of the city for the night. Rather than take a Metro I took a long walk down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées (which includes the Arc de Triomphe), taking side routes whenever anything appeared of interest. I needed to stop by the Disney Store while I was there to pick up my three-day park hopper for the next day (apparently they offer the best discounts there, so if you’re planning on visiting Disneyland, you’re best off stopping by Paris beforehand to pick up your tickets there). For some reason their ticket window wasn’t staffed that evening, and the sign directed me to go to the Virgin Megastore next door to pick up tickets instead, which I did. Their current offer was €107 for the three day / two park pass, which considering how I hear about the American parks charging over $80 for a one day pass to one of their properties I’d say is a reasonable price.

As the sun began to set I made my way to the meeting point for the second tour of the day I signed up for, a ghost story walk. As it happened I was one of only three people on the tour, and barely ten minutes after it started a steady rainfall began and lasted for nearly an entire hour. I was hoping the tour would involve actually entering some of the buildings, but unfortunately we just stood outside them in the wet while the guide regaled us of some ghastly happening, not that I could really remember many of them as the weather was a bit of a distraction. When it was over I was thoroughly soaked through to the bone and needed to get back to the hostel to change into dry clothes and take a long, hot shower. Of course, being a hostel in Europe, the words “long” and “hot” can’t really be associated with that of “shower”, but by that point any form of refreshment felt good. My roommates from the previous night had moved on, but they weren’t replaced by anyone else so of the four beds two were left unoccupied, the fourth in use by an older Spanish lady who appeared to have been in bed for a while when I first got in and still sound asleep when I left the next morning for my first day at Disneyland Paris.

Next: Disneyland Paris (Part 1)