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

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