Castelnuovo del Garda, Veneto, Italy – Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Before entering the main gates at Gardaland that morning I found the guest services building which the map indicated was where a free left luggage service was held. Very nice. Before handing over my bag they asked if I had any food in it. Giancarlo and Teresa had given me a small package with some snacks for the next few days so I instinctively answered ‘yes’ without thinking why they might want to know. “I’m sorry, but we’re not allowed to keep this here if there’s food.” Great. Can we rewind time twenty seconds and pretend I said ‘no’? There’s a self-operated locker service near the Atlantis water ride, but that costs €1 per hour, and I have to remove my back at least one hour before the park closes otherwise I risk it getting permanently locked inside. This doesn’t seem a very wise option. So I’m stuck with carrying around my twenty pound bag for the entire day. Much silent grumbling immediately ensued. (On the plus side, this meant I didn’t have to buy any lunch from them as I had enough snacks on me to tide me over until after I had left, so I guess the prank’s on Gardaland…)

The first attraction was Blue Tornado, the park’s Vekoma SLC with an added helix. While for many coaster travelers an SLC is a ride to be tried once for posterity’s sake and then disembarked with a shrug of the shoulders and a crick of the neck, I find the layout when running with amply proper smoothness to be more exhilarating than many of B&M’s attempts at crafting an original inverted coaster design. To quickly restate my Thunderhawk review, it establishes a frenetic pace with the first elements which strategically sequences itself to a coup-de-grace climax of double barrel-rolls with nearby supports threatening amputation of key ambulatory appendages. The primary deficiency of the layout in my eyes (apart from occasional shunting of the vehicles which I must be lucky in avoiding) is a coda after the barrel rolls which is a rather aimless and meandering attempt to get back to the brakes, but since it doesn’t add or detract anything from the main layout that precedes it, it can’t be categorized as anything worse than perhaps a lost opportunity.

Blue Tornado’s final helix almost certainly would have exacerbated the problem of too much loose final track at the end of the experience if it weren’t for one detail: a series of hedges built underneath the track which get so close to riders feet that those sitting on the inner left side (or even the outer right side if you’re tall enough) can easily reach out and scrape the sole of their shoe along the leaves. At furthest extension my feet could only brush along the topmost layer for the entire helix, but if the distance between plant and seat were to change by even an inch or two I might have been in for a nasty surprise. While I couldn’t find any immediate safety threat, the result was nevertheless unnerving to have the barrier between secured passenger and lethally high-velocity outside world removed in such a way that one could directly feel the other. A unique finish indeed, and one that was worthy of at least two more immediate re-rides that morning. Good ride.

With a posted five minute queue Mammut might have been next but I figured with its high capacity it should retain that short queue all day so I gave it a pass for the moment. Instead I took a walk around the back loop of the park, first starting with a trip on their Flying Island, the first of this type of attraction I’ve ever been on, which afforded a nice perspective of the park and its proximity to Lake Garda.

Next door the Space Vertigo Intamin freefall tower appeared to have yet gathered a queue so I figured to try it now rather than risk a long wait later. The preride queue area was quite accomplished in creating a 1970’s NASA space theme, but for some reason they held guests just outside of this area and then had us quickly walk straight through it immediately to the boarding platform. It was tempting to speculate if this used up their budget allotted for the tower itself, as it couldn’t have been much taller than many of the transportable Fabbri or ARM drop rides, by far the shortest Intamin tower. An odd cap over the top of the tower also seemed like a missed opportunity for more theatrical anticipation when in fact the inside was barren and you could still easily see outside from under it. A more realistic guess for these odd features more likely involves local ordinances requiring it not be built too high or requiring a scream shield to keep any noises that riders may potentially emit at bay. However it’s often the opinion of many that these shorter drop towers can be just as effective as their larger brethren, as it’s primarily the initial ‘kick’ when the latch clicks and our butts become weightless that provides the thrill, and that was still very much present in this ride. That’s part of the problem I have with the controlled, faster-than-freefall plunges, because even if a greater force is present the motors still have to work for a split second before the force of gravity is defeated, and that moment of the instantaneous removal of the seat force which makes the inner ear scream red-alert is severely dampened.

Filling up much of the back loop was Fuga da Atlantide, or Escape from Atlantis. This is an Intamin water flume ride with a questionable second identity as a roller coaster (a proto-Aqua Trax, perhaps) due to the presence of some tri-tube track on the lifts and drops, although the vehicles are threaded onto and then disengaged from these rails in the water channels so I’ll deem it in closer likeness to a ride like Cedar Point’s Shoot the Rapids. My choice was to ride in the front because everyone else was avoiding that row. Hmm, think that might be a clue, Dr. Watson? This ride seemed to have huge quantities of Atlantian props and façades around it but ultimately they didn’t seem to add anything to the experience. The ground-level flume channels were painfully slow, and they offered little to look at besides more faceless scenery. The giant Poseidon statue with golden nipples was the most interesting contribution from the themeing department, but since this was easily viewable from the midway it didn’t serve much of a point to see it again on-ride. Spread throughout this are the two ‘exciting’ bits, an elevator cable lift with a coaster-track turnaround leading into a splashdown drop. Here’s why the front row wasn’t the greatest idea; while the splash itself was fairly dry, the waterfall effects on the drop had several plates meant to kick up the water to give it a cascading look, but these were to an exaggerated effect which in turn splashed up and over the boat’s nose and onto yours truly sitting squarely center to absorb it all.

Before attempting the other half of the park I thought it a good time to give their custom Vekoma mine train Mammut a spin. However, upon arrival I discovered two things: the wait time was now estimating at least 45 minutes (where did that come from?) and there was no bag storage on the station platform as with every other ride, you had to leave your bag (this is true) along a wall next to the entrance on the main midway, where presumably anyone else could walk up and freely take it while the schmucks that own them are standing in line. As the contents of my bag included my laptop, passport, at least €60 in cash, you can see why this was not an attractive proposal. Against my better judgment, rather than skip the attraction (I needed to do it at least once during the day anyway) I figured that enough other bags were present that they must not encounter too many problems with this setup, perhaps from a difference in cultural norms which discourages theft whenever someone else’s belonging is left unattended for longer than 30 seconds. With great reluctance I tucked it as far behind a corner as I could and then joined the queue.

Part of the reason the line built up so quickly besides still being the new, must-ride attraction, only two trains were being cycled on a layout with three lifts, but just as I was getting towards the station, they shut it down for another ten minutes to add the third train. I’m trying to recall if the seats were molded the same on the Eagles: Life in the Fast Lane. I don’t recall any problems with that ride, but soon after departing I found the hard-backed seats that offered little seat support made the unnecessary shaking this coaster had all the more unendurable. From offride in the queue I sensed some danger of this just by noticing the guide wheels divot back and forth as they rolled along the track with apparently too much slack between them and the rails.

Like Escape from Atlantis, I find this one also suffers from a problem of excessive themed edifices which add very little to the overall experience. Maybe it was because I knew I was on a production model ride and that everything was built to fit around the track rather than the other way around, but when it consists of nothing but vertical, boxy, iced-stone walls and square cut-out tunnels, failing both to establish either a sense of place or to offer any set-pieces with a ‘face’ beckoning one’s attention to them, the theming honestly seemed negligible. (Actually there were a few special props but since the track wasn’t custom designed to naturally ‘present’ them for riders, most whizzed by unnoticed on my first ride.) While I admittedly overpraised the Eagles just because it was one of only two coasters I got to ride at Hard Rock Park and technically my first coaster ever to properly review, I still think that the addition of music was stronger contributions to that ride’s relative success than an entire third section with extensive frozen decorations did for Mammut, although I would probably be in the minority on that opinion. Most likely the rougher tracking was the biggest turn-off.

To give a few insights on the coaster itself, while I’m always in favor of long, meandering layouts where it’s not just a random sequencing of one big element after another (especially when three lift hills are involved; seriously, when was the last time before Mammut a regional theme park built one of those?), I find the mine train genre doesn’t work as well when the track is forced into a compact space unless they start incorporating other things into the layout besides long curves and shallow drops. That’s partly why the addition of the third lift offered diminishing returns on the ride’s overall excitement; after two parts of random layout noodling, do we really need one more? A large downhill double-helix and a surprise exit of the rocky prop area to suddenly twist high over a natural forested valley near the end are a step in the right direction in terms of providing a more distinguished closing act, but it’s still maybe not quite enough, especially compared to the amazing finale on Disneyland Paris’s Big Thunder Mountain. (Heck, even as corny as Adventure Express’s ‘finale’ is, it’s at least something memorable!) Best row is in the back, where you can watch the entire train snake around the corners ahead of you, and because with the locomotive the front actually offers worse views. Overall a minor disappointment, and the best part was the relief I had when I found my backpack still untouched when I finished.

After some more Blue Tornado rides and taking a break on a park bench to snack on a small lunch, I moseyed over through the park’s western “Frontierland” section (what a surprise, another European theme park with an ‘homage’ to Disney.) While without as large of rides, this older side of Gardaland seemed a bit nicer, with more mature trees grown between attractions rather than a large loop of midway with a line-up of arbitrarily themed attractions built over flat, grassy land. On the whole Gardaland seemed like a pleasant enough theme park and I can understand (if not wholly sympathize with) why it’s one of the most visited parks in Europe, although the lack of a major, high-quality, unique roller coaster still haunts it when it’s still not strong enough on theme or setting to compete with the likes of Europa Park or PortAventura. One complaint I had read online before my visit was that customer services were also terrible at Gardaland. Since I never once entered a café or gift shop and the rides all seemed to be cycled efficiently enough I can’t complain too much, but upon my entry to the loading platform of the Magic Mountain Vekoma looping coaster I discovered where some of those hard feelings may have been generated.

The train before I was to board (which would have been only a single-cycle wait) ended up stuck at the platform for at least five to ten minutes due to some dispute a group of traveling European enthusiasts had with the operators. While at the time I couldn’t figure out what exactly was going on since it was all conducted in angry Italian, I later discovered by coincidence that one of the members of the NoLimits-Exchange was part of that club and needed to call Gardaland out for what was a case of unjust treatment. What happened was one of their members had a large scar on his face but was in no other ways handicapped, but this didn’t stop the operators from making their own ruling on his eligibility to ride and demanded he leave. Of course the rest of the group refused to let him move which resulted in the temporary station lock-down (also leaving riders on the second train to sun bake for a while); I learned this was only one of many incidents they had with the park that day. A very surprising discrimination policy, especially since it sounds like management hands that authority over to their workers carte blanche.

Anyway, the main notable feature about Magic Mountain is that it’s the first ride for me to try the new Vekoma sit-down restraints, which feature a streamlined car design and over-the-shoulder straps which are, if not soft, at least semi-pliable. While it guaranteed a reduction of headbanging as there was no longer any restraining material positioned near one’s noggin, I didn’t expect that to be a major problem with Magic Mountain anyway and the new design is much more snug than the old horsecollars, resting firmly on top of one’s shoulders and chest, causing a minor amount of claustrophobia when pulled all the way down and also not reducing the amount of shockwaves absorbed by the body on bumpier pullouts due to the extra direct contact with the cars flattening you between restraint and seatback. I won’t call it a step backward from the old design, just apples to oranges.

Unfortunately the layout itself was hardly worthy of the special treatment anyway. I love me a good old classic Arrow looping design, the back always promises a good kick of airtime over the first drop, and the loops and turns, designed by geometry rather than force, always keep me aware of my changing orientation (ironically leading to increased disorientation). I had already hit Vekoma gold a couple weeks ago with Super-Wirbel, so why not again?

Maybe it was just that it got off to a bad beginning, with a timid and overstretched first drop, but this ride did nothing for me aside from provide the customary looping sensations which have been individually done one hundred times before. Between these, the turn and final helix were completely without teeth, and the centerpiece inversions were a far cry from the fury of nearby Blue Tornado. A pleasant spring-time color palate with multi-color trains couldn’t prevent this one from being an even bigger disappointment than Mammut, which at least had ambition to be something original.

Nestled inside of Magic Mountain’s layout was a fourth coaster which did promise that ambition to be original: Sequoia Adventure. I was expecting a long wait for this one, but surprisingly I spent barely five minutes in queue before I was watching the attendant nearly topple over as I handed him my weighty backpack. While the chassis is entirely different from the El Loco designs at Indiana Beach or Flamingo Land, the seats and restraints are identical. Climbing the lift I was surprised by my slight nervousness, as I had really no idea what to expect. Technically this ride is tied with its few worldwide duplicates as being the steepest roller coasters in the world with three drop approaching 180°, if that can even be considered ‘steep’ anymore. We get to the top, slide toward the edge and then…

“Ah, okay…?” First time over the edge is exciting. Second time is fun. Third time is getting redundant. Then it’s over. Unfortunately the situation is such that an immediate reride starts from where the last one left off. I don’t think from the time it engages the lift to when it hits the final brakes does our car ever exit the 5-10 mph speed range. To say the ride is all gimmick and no substance is not to employ hyperbole. Thankfully it’s an interesting gimmick. Basically the idea is to hold you at one G in whatever direction is available. The flips over the edge are definitely the coaster’s most interesting moments, although I couldn’t help but feel they’d be more effective if built with a larger radius and allowed a few feet to gain momentum in order to have more fun fucking with your inner ear. I’m glad that S&S realized with their El Locos that three 180° vertical turns by themselves does not a coaster make, in fact it barely even qualifies as a wild mouse which was their point of inspiration. Like a good joke, the first time you hear it it’s unforgettably funny, but that doesn’t mean having it retold several times throughout the day is necessary. Additionally there were lizards in the queue.

Capping the furthest edge of the park was Gardaland’s fifth and final coaster, the Ortobruco Tour. This might be the world’s largest wacky worm, although despite the similarly design train the use of regular tubular steel rails and supports makes me want to give the nearby Valle degli Gnomi that official distinction. That’s not to detract from the fact that this children’s coaster is long, taking at least a couple minutes to complete a circuit which meanders back and forth over a square patch of gardens, many of the nearby shrubs actually brushing into the ride vehicle similar to Blue Tornado. There are multiple lifts, although it’s more like an odd tire drive is placed every so often when the train needs a boost, and occasionally a few are stringed together on a longer uphill section of track. I sort of wish I went for a re-ride but I never did.

Other rides I tried in the park included the Ramses: Il Risveglio dark ride (aka Ramses: the Revenge), which had an odd techno/sci-fi Egyptian tomb theme in an interactive shooter format that didn’t improve the ride anyway. I Corsari was a second major dark ride which I somehow missed; when I checked the map it looked like just an elaborately decorated swinging ship, and never ventured over to its corner to investigate further. However, despite some reports praising the attraction, I suspect that if I had given it a go my review would have echoed that for Piraten in Batavia.

As the sun was starting to come out and I no longer felt the need to wear my jacket, the Colorado Boat flume ride seemed a good idea. The queue was the second longest I’d experience that day after Mammut (and also the second to require I drop my back at the entrance). There was a pleasant ground-level run through the trees and the artificial mountain with some waterfall effects, culminating in a climb straight up then straight down a relatively sharp drop into a splashdown that again got me wetter than I had been led to anticipate from European water rides. I ended up skipping the Jungle Rapids for fear this one too might result in a soaking. The last attraction was Inferis: Il Laberinto del Terrore. This was the main ‘new for 2010’ thing at the park so I decided to give it a try especially since Europeans are supposed to do better walkthrough attractions than in the States. Unfortunately this was just a second-rate Halloween scare zone attraction I’d find at any American park that has a Halloween event, and the only thing I had any real reason to fear were some very loud noises that seemed like they’d easily damage anyone’s ears.

With less than an hour left to finish the day I decided to get another ride on Mammut under my belt: happily the three trains had whittled the previously long queue down to a manageable five minute wait. Additionally, as I was about to disembark I noticed one row of seats appeared as though it would go unoccupied so I quickly slid in, which the ride attendants either didn’t notice or didn’t care. I was enjoying it more on re-rides, so I went back twice more afterward, for a total of five circuits that day.

To wrap up the evening, I crammed in at least three or four more walk-on Blue Tornado rides, my clear vote for best ride in the park. Hopefully that says as much about the relative quality of this SLC as it does for the relative lack-thereof in the park’s other starring attractions. In the end I found I had more than enough activities to fill an entire day with, and that was with mostly short queues and skipping one of the principle water rides and dark rides each. I daresay 2011’s X-Raptor will be a highly welcomed addition however, as the park needs something to compete with the show-stopping Katun and iSpeed next door (although based on the press release, my suspicions will be that this will be better regarded as a must-ride prototype/gimmick attraction à la Sequoia Adventure rather than potential top-ten fodder).

Unfortunately I had another long night ahead of me. After a two-hour-plus transfer in Verona, I was deposited in Bologna Centrale for the night before I’d catch a final train to Mirabilandia the next morning. In retrospect I should have booked a hotel or hostel as I would have at least seven or eight hours in Bologna, but I wanted to stay cheap so once again I had to find a half-way decent sleeping quarters inside the train station. I caved into my first McDonald’s meal abroad (despite the less favorable exchange rate, they don’t even go as low as a Euro-Menu here, and you have to pay for ketchup. I don’t specifically recall what a quarter-pounder with cheese is called in Italy; apologies for those curious). Then scouting out a decently warm place to spend the night, I found they had one large waiting room… unfortunately filled to the brim with homeless or other poor, international travelers, many of whom appeared to have no qualms with having loud conversations or playing their music for everyone at 3:00am in the morning. Stark fluorescent lighting didn’t help, nor did a massive plaque on one wall commemorating the 85 lives lost from a terrorist attack in this very waiting room three decades ago. Where else was I to go, I’d surely catch pneumonia if I waited outside? As I tried get some sleep I reminded myself two things: in a couple hours I’d be riding iSpeed and Katun, and that these are exactly the sort of European adventures I wanted when I signed up for this trip, to be remembered fondly once enough distance has been put between me and the crazy gypsy ladies sharing this metal bench.

Next: Mirabilandia

Previous: Venice (Venezia)

Erlebnispark Tripsdrill

Cleebronn, Germany – Saturday, March 27th, 2010

How meta can this place get? Erlebnispark Tripsdrill is Germany’s oldest operating amusement park, opening in 1929 with a windmill slide built as a side attraction for the restaurant. Over the years as it became more popular, it grew into a symbol for the Germanic culture with museums featuring the local history, buildings constructed using the local architectural styles, and an all-around atmosphere that couldn’t be found anywhere else but in Germany. It’s for attractions like these that we travel, right? But as the zeitgeist marched towards modernity, Tripsdrill became a theme park, and a first-rate one at that. Rides with impressively-detailed settings and elaborate enclosed queues with audio-animatronic characters and multi-media displays meant to create a fully-immersive environment… all themed to what? The very same Germanic culture that this attraction was once a symbol for! Erlebnispark Tripsdrill is a traditional German park themed to traditional German parks!

As I first walked into the gates on their drizzly, overcast opening day of the 2010 season, it struck me as a rather peculiar choice of representation that there should have to be façades themed to be hyper-real versions of the buildings within the same town, animatronic characters representing the very people whom presumably still live not a few kilometers away, and landscaping meant to simulate the German countryside that surrounds it but on a smaller scale. After all, isn’t the main selling point of a theme park to escape from reality into someplace different? For locals this really isn’t an escape and for tourists that have bother to come all the way to Germany, why settle for a replica they could theoretically get anywhere in the world when the real thing lay just beyond the admission gates? There’s probably another one of my famous analyses/rants boiling beneath the surface of that thought. I’ll let it simmer for a bit as I do a review of the park and all of the rides, and then pick it back up at the end, okay?

The infrastructure layout of Tripsdrill is possibly the strangest I have ever encountered at a park. To get to the corner on which Mammut is located (think of the park as a large square, the entrance and Mammut are at opposite corners) you first have to cross to the back of the park, and then turn around and cross back to the front. You then have to walk along the front edge until finding the open clearing along which the Flume and G’sengte Sau are located, where you may then walk directly back to Mammut. Essentially it’s the same distance as if you were to walk the entire perimeter of the park once. Incredibly confusing without a map, but once I adjusted it was not without its charms.

For one, it’s a very beautiful park, especially in the original section near the entrance. Lots of timber-framed buildings, gardens, trees, and other miscellaneous objects scattered about as if a small German hamlet, oddly complete with clotheslines hanging out to dry over the pathways. At the end of the main midway is the park’s first ride, the Maypole, a small, rotating parachute/observation tower of sorts. It doesn’t quite go high enough to get a view of the entire park, but still remains a pleasant diversion and is a good way to begin a visit to the park regardless.

On the left was a woodsy section with a few rides located around a small pond, a petting zoo I believe just beyond it. A few attractions of note include a walkthrough fun house with several sections of downhill catwalks made of rollers that would sure to be banned in the US. Even better however is the Doppelter Donnerbalken, which at first glance appears to be a slightly larger and more expensive version of an S&S Frog Hopper, which in a way it is. Extra height and two-row deep floorless cars are a plus, as is an elaborate treehouse theme disguising the tower (actually towers, as there are two facing each other) which shows no expense was spared. But best of all, is after a bouncy cycle to the top, the entire car suddenly tips forward by several degrees before plunging in freefall all the way to the bottom. As there was no queue I didn’t get to see a cycle run before I tried it for myself so the effect took me completely by surprise. Honestly a bigger thrill than Tower of Terror five days ago. Definitely a must-ride for anyone visiting the park (hopefully I didn’t spoil the surprise for you).

Around the side of the pond meeting up with the ‘main midway’ (as central a midway as can be found at Tripsdrill, at least) is the Altweibermühle, aka the Old Windmill, and the park’s oldest ride. Inside you can climb to the top, and then take the most awesome burlap sack slide I’ve ever been on back to the bottom. I did this thing at least five times over the course of the day, despite having walked the distance uphill myself, the drop down always goes much further and faster than expected. Another must-visit for the park.

Beneath their large restaurant was a room labeled the Trillarium which I went to investigate what it contained. It turned out to first house a large machine gun collection, followed by a second room filled with various life-size figurines of German people. Odd to say the least. Around the side of the building was another stable with yet more animatronic people on display, a rather creepy sight whose purpose wasn’t entirely clear.

Of more clear purpose were some of the rides in the area, which included a lengthy powered car ride (Weinkübelfahrt), with the cars shaped as spinning barrels which navigated an elaborate course around trees and gardens I’m sure would look stunning if not for it being the first day of the season and they had yet to be in bloom. I passed on a ride on this particular attraction which I shouldn’t have, but such is life. Further back appeared to be another children’s section which I didn’t explore (partly for fear of becoming completely lost even with my park map).

Interactive fountains, dioramas, and other features litter the network of winding narrow pathways almost to the point that the entire park feels like one big walk-through attraction. A few of the mechanical rides present in the area include the Gugelhupf-Gaudi-Tour (a tilt-a-whirl ride themed to a bakery) the iconic Wirbelpilz (Mushroom Swing) and Schlappen-Tour (a sort of Jr. Himalaya themed to shoes). Of most especial note to the coaster enthusiasts is the first roller coaster to find in the park, the Rasender Tausendfüßler.

This was having some lift hill problems when I first arrived, but they fixed it after applying the practical diagnostics method of testing it ten times in a row until it spontaneously works one of those times. Technically there’s nothing special about this ride as it’s a basic Large Tivoli layout which can be found at parks all across the world, but what makes this one special is the fantastic landscaping surrounding it making it almost as fun to watch as it is to ride. Riding is great fun too, however, mostly because of how close to the ground it gets. Anyone that wants to can easily reach out and run their fingers through the grass on the ground-level banked turns, of which the bottom part of the I-beam rails essentially sit flat on the soil. Never before has a 15mph roller coaster feel maybe a little bit too fast.

As I had not had anything to eat since the vending machine snacks at the Vienna train station the previous night, I needed to grab a lunch. A walk-up tray service location with a long menu seemed the more promising in the park outside of the sit-down restaurant, but unfortunately the menu was entirely German cuisine and they offered no translations. Looking over it I could easily figure the “mit Pommes” phrase attached to every entrée meant “with Fries”, but for the main course itself I was clueless if I might inadvertently be ordering roasted hog’s snout… save for one item I recognized: Bratwurst (mit Pommes). Since today was my first day in Germany I felt I should be a bit more adventurous than that, so I decided to ask at the counter if anyone speaks English, and if so if they can make a menu recommendation for a first time German traveler.

The first lady I spoke to knew almost no English, but they rounded up the one cook who supposedly did speak my mother tongue. I re-asked my question “what is recommended?” (which is a lousy question since it seems all hospitality businesses are required to helpfully unhelpfully answer “whatever you’d like the most”) but my supposed translator looked at me as if I were chanting voodoo incantations, so I gave up and settled on the bratwurst, which wasn’t particularly special, at least for the price.

Rounding out the set of attractions in the original part of the park is Waschzuber-Rafting, which I believe was their first truly large scale ride investment sometime back in the mid-1980’s. Perhaps against my better judgment given the cold, wet climate I decided to take a ride, not knowing how wet I might get but operating under the impression that “European water rides aren’t that wet”. While I would definitely discover that statement to be false, it would not occur to me today, as I made it through with only the lightest of sprinkles tosses up on some of the rapids. That’s not to say I didn’t nearly shit myself when I saw the channel approaching a large waterfall… which turned off a moment before the raft passed under. Thank god those sensors were working properly the first day of the season. While nicely landscaped and themed (apparently to clothes washing, as there were detailed sets built along the queue illustrating), there wasn’t anything of particular excitement along the course of the rapids save for the waterfall effect. That’s not counting the whirlpool element near the end, which from offride looks like a pretty fascinating element, but from onride it’s just a flat, curving channel around the outside of a whirlpool effect.

Unfortunately for fans of parks featuring quirky, well-landscaped and serpentine midways, the three largest attractions in the park are all located away from the rest of the layout in the middle of a big, cleared grassy field with long empty midways stretched between to connect them. My natural instinct is that this is the site of long-term future developments to eventually fill in the empty space, but if so they’re certainly taking their time as they started this expansion with the Bathtub Flume Ride in 1996 and then G’sengte Sau in 1998, and haven’t added to it since until Mammut opened in 2008, extending the area of unfilled land back even further. Perhaps it’s useful for picnics and events during warmer months. Regardless, it hasn’t prevented them from applying an attention to detail to these three attractions that would be the envy of larger themers such as nearby Europa-Park.

First up is the Jungbrunnen (aka Bathtub Flume Ride) which honestly might be my favorite flume ride in the world. I only rode it once as it only operated for a couple hours in the afternoon and I didn’t want to risk getting any more wet from repeat rides, so I can’t remember every detail, but what I do remember is fairly impressive. Starting with the queue, which is practically better described as a museum with bathing artifacts as well as displays apparently concerning the mythology of the Fountain of Youth (as well as some other peculiar odds-and-ends), we eventually board our bathtub boat and then depart around a short flume, feeding us into the first small lift. A refreshing drop of about 25 feet or so gets things off to a good start. The channel curves us around indoors where another lift is approached, where at the top is a short dark ride section followed by a reversing mechanism feeding the tub directly into a backwards drop I was not anticipating. This next drop is apparently to ensure everyone in the boat, front or back, gets equally doused. Back outdoors, the flume meanders around a bit more before engaging the third conveyor lift which takes us all the way up to the maximum height. At the indoor section on the top is very large set displaying the Fountain of Youth, which includes about fifteen or so very anatomically correct nude female bathing figures. This is still a family ride in a family park, correct? Anyway, after this room we finish with the big drop which seemed steeper than most flume rides (they claim it’s the largest in Europe which I have a hard time believing). A splashdown which wasn’t too horribly wet and then back to the station.

Intertwined with parts of the flume structure is G’segnte Sau, Gerstlauer’s debut roller coaster creation and possibly the best non-spinning, single-car family roller coaster I’ve ever been on. Aside from the great landscaping and close flybys with the flume buildings and stone tunnels, it’s simply a complete ride. It fits so many different maneuvers into a logically organized progression sequence that’s normally only associated with massive, multi-million dollar signature attractions which are voted in top ten lists, not a quint little bi-rail family toboggan coaster, but yet it is. Let me bring out my old friend, the sequencing pattern analysis (see Fahrenheit, Thunderhawk, Millennium Force or Voyage for previous examples) to show you exactly what I mean:

(1 = banked spiraling drops/helices; 2 = switchbacks w/ laterals; 3 = airtime hills. Text darkness = intensity)

12 – 1 – 31

A simple and effective sequencing pattern, the beauty is that each number represents a radically different ride experience. Although it could be possible to take issue with a sequence that doesn’t end in climax, there’s regardless a sense of closure and satisfaction with the last gentle, looping figure-eight that echoes the ride’s earliest moments. Having ride carriages which are super lightweight, open air and unobtrusive only helps to up the fun factor by many notches. The second, middle section can feel particularly intense when riding in such vulnerable cars. And then there’s the airtime hill sequence… why does it seem so rare for family rides to do airtime? After the rather hard laterals of the second part and the slightly scary spiraling intensity of the third, to get to the airtime sequence is such a joyful, happy way to start winding back down to the end. Special bonus points to Tripsdrill and Gerstlauer for the landscaped hills these bunny hops follow, and having the last airtime drop reach slightly further down into a trench than the rest. Made me slightly sad I missed Paulton’s Park’s version later that spring, but that one was without the landscaping and final helix.

So far I’m two-for-two with Tripsdrill’s large rides, now for their third and largest, Mammut. My gut feeling is that when looking to build Mammut, Tripsdrill originally talked to Great Coasters International about doing the job. It’s all there: curving first drop into a spectacularly banked fan curve, more high-banked, ground-level partial helices before a finale consisting of fast, back-and-forth directional changes. However, after being given an idea of a layout they really liked, were either unable to settle on a contract or simply needed to work with a local German firm instead. Either that or Tripsdrill just went to Stengel from the beginning and said “design us a wooden coaster like that!” (points to Thunderhead).

The ride, as you may know, was designed by Ingenieur Büro Stengel and built by Ingenieur-Holzbau Cordes (the same people responsible for bringing Intamin’s prefabricated wooden coaster technology to life; Intamin has no involvement with Mammut, however) and the result is pretty simply that: A GCI ride built as a Plug-n-Play. If you were to look up both of those terms in the dictionary of Things Coaster Enthusiasts Like, the result should have been orgasmic bliss, but instead it unfortunately serves to highlight the weaknesses of both with few of the advantages. Note the track doesn’t actually use prefabricated track, but the product seen here doesn’t feel that much further off except for allowing a bit more wiggle room for the wheel bases.

The reason GCI’s style of layout with plenty of direction changes works is because it can feel out of control. Stengel is generally good at making rides ‘forceful’ or ‘fast-paced’, but unfortunately he seems yet to have developed a computer algorithm for ‘out-of-controlness’. Even in the case of Mammut, those two qualities that are present in rides such as El Toro were missing here. Most dearly absent were the little airtime pops that GCI tends to imbue in their transitions, here I only got a series of over-heartlined s-curves.

That’s not to say that these two concepts are both fundamentally incompatible in creating a top-tier wooden coaster, but when also factoring in the three-bench Gerstlauer cars, I’d hazard a guess that makes it especially tough. Not afforded the rotational flexibility of the single-bench Millennium Flyer cars, the transitions into high banking on Mammut are required to ‘sweep’ up and around (along the x and y axes) rather than ‘twist’ inline (along the z axis) as a GCI will do, which produces both slower pacing (more track length is required to reach a certain pitch) and more subdued dynamics which emphasizes light positive g’s over sharper laterals and fast rotational movement.

Of course for this to be criticism rather than commentary, is to be presupposing the question that Tripsdrill even wanted a coaster as intense as a GCI or as forceful as a Intamin Prefab. Most likely they wanted a ride that was fun without being at all scary for visitors apprehensive towards riding a wooden coaster (this was after all one of the first modern wooden coasters in the entire region). I will say at this they succeeded, as it manages to be a fun, easily reridable coaster, although moments like the airtime hill lacking anything of the sort do still lend slightly to a feeling of failed ambitions due to over-cautious engineering; it’s also entirely possible part of my lukewarm experiences with Mammut are due to it being the first day of the season and the trains had yet to warm up or break in yet. For a park the size of Tripsdrill this possibly the most perfect attraction they could have added since it’s a new signature ride but doesn’t exert unneeded dominance over the existing rides, the larger ambitions of a full-scale wood coaster standing about equal with G’sengte Sau’s greater relative success as a small family mouse.

This is also the first wooden coaster I’ve been on to feature a pre-show before the lift. A lumber mill with all sorts of lights, buzzers and switches going off with a saw buzzing overhead, the strangest effect was the fog they used for some reason shifted the light spectrum of the visible sky outside the tunnel to a greenish-yellow, the first time I rode momentarily making me think some really strange storm clouds had suddenly move in until we had cleared the fog and were back in open air. It wasn’t like the fog itself was yellow, it was just… weird. I have a premonition one of these days they’ll release medical findings that these types of theme park fog effects release a chemical causing neurodegeneration.

With a heavy rain storm coming in late that afternoon cutting the last hour of riding short, I had to call it quits for the riding and find the entrance.  Before hopping on the bus to get to Haßloch that night, I need to go back and answer one of my original questions: is Tripsdrill an authentically German park, or is it a park themed to appear authentically German? This brings up a thorny issue in the argument between postmodernist social critics of theme parks and advocates for theme parks, in which the one side declares themed experiences to be superficial and fake, to which the other side points out that, ontologically speaking, theme parks are no less real than any of the things they are themed to. And this is extremely true. Whether you’re looking at the real Taj Mahal or a Styrofoam replica in Florida, both are extended objects made up of the same constituents that compose the fabric of the universe as any other object (although at the molecular level there’s a difference between extruded polystyrene foam and recrystallized carbonate minerals). Some of the better theme parks are so sophisticated that the items found within them are structurally identical to their real life counterparts, to the point that if taken out of their context they are indistinguishable from each other. After all, if Disney is to purchase a steam locomotive that once serviced the gold-mining areas of the Pacific Northwest, what’s to make that piece of equipment any less real once it’s relocated to sunny California and made to haul around paying tourists instead?

But still, anyone should intuitively realize that this is not what the theme park critic is arguing against. Clearly all objects have the same degree of ontological realness, so the idea of imitation must be about context, and describing the social or subject-object relationships that affect how people viewed themed attractions differently from other structures. Perhaps it’s holding the simultaneous belief that an object is authentic while at the same time knowing that it’s been intentionally crafted by other people with the intent of deception which is what some people find problematic with theme parks. But that still leaves open the question of how does one separate the artificial from the real. If it’s a matter of context, then Tripsdrill would seem to be in the clear as it’s a German-themed park located in Germany. Logically that should neutralize any concept of themeing and turn the enterprise into a wholly authentic one, right? Then why do I still want to associate Tripsdrill more along the lines of theme parks like Disneyland Paris or PortAventura rather than locations authentically integrated with their local culture such as Knoebels or Tibidabo?

I think a large part of what makes me want to label a park as authentic is that there’s an implied lack of choice and an absence of global awareness in their design. When looking at the layout and attention to detail present in Tripsdrill, it was clear that a hefty amount of calculation had gone into determining the precise look and feel of the park. If that is the case, then presumably one can conclude that, when designing a ride, equal effort would be exerted regardless if it were themed to Germany, Asia, the Old West, the Cretaceous Period, etc. What makes something feel authentic is if there’s a sense of necessity to its appearance which is external to the human calculation which built it. That is, you build stone walls in Ireland because those are the building materials you have access to, you grill mahi-mahi in Hawaii because that’s what you find in the water, and you build timber-framed restaurants which serve schnitzel and bratwurst in Germany not because you choose to theme it as such, but because given the environmental circumstances (this can extend as far as traditions, local tastes, etc.) that’s what people are required to do. That’s where cultures come from, isn’t it?

This definition immediately presents some problems because it implies that for something to be authentic it has to be culturally isolated, and the number of places in the world where this is true is shrinking at an astonishing rate thanks to a little thing called globalization. It’s become assumed that any place in the industrialized has the money and resources to build their cities any style of their choosing. Pagodas in Paris? We have the knowledge base and resources to do it, so why not? Adobe cottages in Austria? Same applies, more or less. This argument seems to lead to the conclusion not that theme parks like Tripsdrill are as authentic as the cities that surround them, but that those cities are as fake as theme parks built to replicate them, as a necessary consequence of a fully globalized world in which cultural differentiation still exists.

I do think there’s a good deal of truth to this. In the fifty years since Disney the concept of ‘imitation’ or ‘hyper-reality’ has become so ingrained within worldwide cultures that it’s now impossible to separate that which is real from which is a façade; much of what defines a culture (especially American or others in developing markets) is the ways they imitate others, or even themselves. One of the phenomena I found most interesting during my time in Italy was how so much of the Italian culture I observed seemed to only be there for the sake of the tourists. Do you think the tableside violinist at a candlelit outdoor ristorante would still be playing Bella Notte if the tourists that came to Italy didn’t demand it? Of course not, they can play any other song composed from anywhere else in the world of their choosing. The entire city of Venice is today one giant tourist attraction; it doesn’t actually function as a working metropolis besides to generate travel revenue for the surrounding region. For a tourist, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see the “real Italy” unimpeded; you instead have to settle for the real Italy as it attempts to simulate the “hyper-real Italy”.

Hold on, this criticism is being taken too far; I have a horrible feeling I missed an important and key consideration somewhere. Yes, it is true that Erlebnispark Tripsdrill is a theme park in all the ways I described above rather than some of the other parks I might describe as more ‘authentic’. However, it cannot possibly exist anywhere else in the world without losing the one feature that makes it a very special feeling place: the fact that it’s a proud statement of identity for the people that built and operate it signifying that this heritage is so important to them that it’s worth building a theme park to celebrate.

Now THAT is something you can’t find just anywhere, Tripsdrill is one of the few parks in the world that has it, and an attempt to duplicate it anywhere else in the world would never yield the same results. The same goes for Italy or anywhere else in the world that maintains its unique appearance despite the fact that little extra effort would be required to transform it into something else. It’s not still an imitation like you find at Disney, the existential expression of identity is something very real and important, and that’s more or less what I think I can conclude Tripsdrill to be.

The animatronic people around the park were still creepy as shit, however.

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