TPJThemeParkJames

ECC North America 6

4-19 June 2016

A fortnight travelling through the States of the American Heartland, beginning in Chicago and ending up in Atlanta.

This was something of a dream US trip for me, taking in a load of theme parks which I'd been longing to visit for years. With a fortnight to cover 15 parks across 12 States, the pace was unrelenting but the experience was well worth it. I was joined for the journey by thirty or so other members of the European Coaster Club. By the end of the two weeks, we'd travelled from Chicago, through much of the US "heartland", down to Atlanta, sharing many rides, experiences, stories, hours of coach travel and sweat (yeah, the air conditioning on the coach wasn't spectacular) along the way.

Bay Beach Amusement Park

Saturday 4th June 2016

Day 1 at Bay Beach

The first day of the trip featured the typical early morning start for transatlantic trips, followed by a couple of hours waiting around in Heathrow Terminal 5 before meeting up with fellow trip-goers and boarding our BA flight to Chicago. Hours later, we landed in the US and met up with the rest of the club members who had travelled separately.

What's the sensible thing to do after a long day travelling? Head for the hotel, have a nice dinner and an early night, right? We boarded our coach for a three hour journey north to Bay Beach Amusement Park in Wisconsin.

Zippin PippinBay Beach is home to Zippin Pippin, a ride made famous because it was Elvis Presley's favourite rollercoaster and the one he rode a week or so before he died. Well, that's what they kind of imply anyway. The real story is a little more cloudy. Yes, Elvis' favourite rollercoaster was called Zippin Pippin and he did ride it a week before he died, at Libertyland in Memphis. This was eventually purchased by Bay Beach, but most of the original coaster's materials were unsalvageable, so Bay Beach's version is largely a reconstruction.

Whether or not the ride is or is not quite the original (hey, wooden coasters have most of their wood replaced over the years anyway), Zippin Pippin is a really fun ride. From the ground it doesn't look nearly as good as it is. There are some amazing airtime hills - my trip badge almost flew off on the first drop!

We didn't stay too long at Bay Beach - most of us had been awake for over 24 hours by that stage after all. Following a stop at IHOP for dinner, the coach took us back down to Chicago and to our hotel. Was Bay Beach a good park? Yes, it was pleasant enough. Was it worth a six-hour round-trip following a transatlantic flight? Probably not.

More:  Bay Beach Amusement Park Day 1 Video

Six Flags Great America

Sunday 5th & Monday 6th June 2016

Days 2&3 at Six Flags Great America

Following our mammouth road trip the previous day, I think we were all glad that Six Flags Great America was only a 15 minute drive from our hotel. We arrived prior to opening as we had to collect Six Flags season passes. With the administration sorted out, the park's PR lady whisked us into the park ahead of the public so we could get the first ride of the day on Goliath, their RMC. After watching them testing for what seemed like an age, we finally boarded - a great ride to start the day!

Being a summer Saturday, the park was busy so a couple of us invested in Platinum Flash Passes - a bargain at a mere $110!! These made the day much more pleasant, considering the jetlag, the hot weather, the crowds and the large number of attractions in the park.

We spent the day riding all the coasters and a few of the other rides including: Superman - Ultimate Flight, a rather intense B&M flyer; X-Flight, a bumpy B&M wing rider with vest restraints which became increasingly restrictive/suffocating throughout the ride; Raging Bull, a superb 200ft tall B&M hyper coaster; and Dark Knight, an indoor wild mouse with some cool theming.

Justice League: The Battle for MetropolisThe park's new addition for 2016 was Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, a large and very expensive dark ride. Unusually for Six Flags, a lot of effort and attention to detail has been put into the scenes, making for a cool immersive experience.

Thanks to our Flash Passes, we also had time to watch the park's Peking Acrobats show. It was really good, with acrobats jumping through hoops, clowns doing a plate Spinning routine and pushing themselves through a small metal tube. Less interesting was a lady balancing candlestick like things on herself, but the finale left me open mouthed as a guy balanced high up on a pile of chairs.

Near to closing time, storm clouds began rolling in. We took a final ride on Raging Bull and headed for the exit, just as the first spots of rain began. As is the often the case with US storms, the rain quickly got worse as we ended up running towards our coach pickup point, and a short drive back to our hotel.

We returned to the park for a few hours the next day. We rode Battle for Metropolis one last time, although the queue took over an hour. Following that, there was just time to ride the Little Dipper kid's woodie and the Sky Tower before boarding the coach and beginning a long journey to Iowa.

More:  Six Flags Great America Days 2&3 Video

Adventureland

Tuesday 7th June 2016

Day 4 at Adventureland

The big attraction of Adventureland was Monster, their Gerstlauer Infinity coaster which had opened only days before we visited. The Smiler at Alton Towers was the first Gesterlauer Infinity I rode, and I'm not a big fan of it. Luckily, I'd already experienced Karacho, a decent version of the model at Tripsdrill earlier in the year, so knew that they can be awesome rides. We headed straight for Monster, and had to wait a few minutes for the final stages of testing before we got the first rides of the day. Whilst I didn't rate it as highly as Karacho, it was still a great ride. Karacho steals the edge with its spectacular vertical dive underground.

TornadoOne of the cool features of Monster is the interaction with the park's chair lift, which goes straight through the middle of the ride. That provided some good photo and filming opportunities.

Aside from Monster, Adventureland has the feel of a traditional all-American amusement park. The atmosphere was very friendly, it was clean and the landscaping was well kept. For pure Americana alone, it was one of my favourite parks of the trip. There was lots of fairground type food on offer - doughnuts, ice cream, dippin dots, burgers, etc, etc. None particularly good quality, but definitely in keeping with the carnival atmosphere.

The park features three wooden coasters: Tornado, a nice out-and-back layout; Outlaw, a more modern and speedy coaster from CCI - check out my POV video to see the kid in front of us losing his hat mid-ride; and Underground, a kiddie coaster cum weird dark ride around various mine scenes.

I'm not a fan of heights, and usually avoid drop towers and similar rides. I've ridden a few star flyers, but although pleased to have done so, haven't really enjoyed the experience. It was therefore with some trepidation and much cajoling that I took a ride on Adventureland's Wind Seeker. Again, I was pleased I'd done it but it's still not up there among my "must-do" ride types. But the views (largely watched through my video camera as the real thing was way too scary) were lovely.

We left Adventureland late afternoon to travel to Kansas City and Worlds of Fun, which would be our next day's park ... or so we thought.

More:  Adventureland Day 4 Video Outlaw POV

Worlds of Fun

Tuesday 7th & Wednesday 8th June 2016

Days 4&5 at Worlds of Fun

The official plan had us picking up Cedar Fair season passes in the morning, although a surprise had been organised: After checking into our hotel we quickly boarded the coach again to head to Worlds of Fun and collect the season passes that evening. And since we had season passes, why not use them?!

PatriotWe headed into the park and found some dinner. As it turned out most of the decent restaurants were already closing up, so we ended up at Subway. There was a bit of time before the park closed, and we managed to fit in their Gerstlauer Spinner (good, but nothing has beaten Vicky the Ride at Plopsa Coo for me yet); Patriot, a B&M inverted which was amazing in the twilight; and Timber Wolf, a rough and ready woodie.

As the park closed at 10pm and the remaining guests walked toward the exit, we headed the other way. The second part of the evening's surprise was a night time ERS on Prowler, the park's top notch wooden coaster from GCI. Riding the coaster into the black night was an amazing experience, even more so since these were my first rides on it so I had no idea about the layout or where the train was taking us. In all, I think I managed 8 rides over the course of half an hour or so.

ProwlerWe were back in the park the next morning, and the only sensible thing to do seemed to be to head first to Prowler, to experience it again in the daylight. While nothing could quite capture the magic atmosphere of the night before, it was still an extraordinary ride in the sunshine.

Another notable coaster is Mamba, Worlds of Fun's 205 foot tall steel coaster from Morgan. Its out and back layout gave plenty of opportunity for some nice hills and an intense helix at the turnaround.

Having had the extra hours in the park the night before meant we had time to see one of the park's shows. We picked Don't Stop Believing, a show which didn't quite know whether it was Saved By the Bell or a rock concert, but had a superb cast who took it as an excuse to belt out numbers from David Lee Roth, Bon Jovi and the like. Given the overall quality, it could do with a higher billing. Of the shows we saw over the course of the fortnight, Don't Stop Believing was my second favourite, only beaten by the much more expensive productions on offer at Dollywood. It was definitely worth being late to lunch for!

Dinner at Danna'sFollowing the BBQ style lunch, there was time for a final front seat ride on Patriot before the coach beckoned once again for what turned out to be a very tortuous and torturous journey to Branson, Missouri. The coach air conditioning hadn't been working properly since the start of the trip, but it really felt uncomfortable that day. Things weren't made any better as it was all rather slow going, and the coach driver took a few, erm, "less than optimal" decisions on which way to go.

After finally reaching Branson, everything got much brighter as we were taken out to dinner by Silver Dollar City, the park we would be visiting the next day. It was hosted at Danna's BBQ and Burgers Restaurant, a small family run place where the charming Danna was on hand to take our orders. Together with the staff from Silver Dollar City, she and her staff made us feel very much at home.

More:  Worlds of Fun Days 4&5 Video

Silver Dollar City

Thursday 9th June 2016

Day 6 at Silver Dollar City

Silver Dollar City is one of those exceptionally rare parks where everything just seems right. The park attempts to recreate its surrounding region as it would have been in the 1880s, and the theming and atmopshere they have created instantly drops you into the heart of it. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the trip was that we didn't get to spend more time there.

WildfireThe park kindly let us in early along with their season pass holders, so we were able to try out some of their coasters in quick succession. Their newest is Outlaw Run, another creation from RMC. It provided for an exciting ride, but it was pretty intense, and that was first thing in the morning. We were able to get another ride on it at the back in the afternoon. Given it had properly warmed up by then, together with the summer heat, by that time I think it was just over the threshold of comfortably intense.

In addition to Thunderation, their mine train, we got a ride on Wildfire. This B&M sitdown is perched on the hillside, and offers speactacular views over the Ozark region. The stunning setting is backed up by a very good ride. It was almost a shame that we didn't have to queue for the ride, as there is a whole backstory to the ride that it is easy to miss out on.

Inside Marvel CaveThe park started life as a side-attraction to Marvel Cave, the massive cave system which lies below it. Visitors today can still experience a tour through the caves, which is what we elected to do as the day visitors began streaming into the park. The tour, led by a charismatic tour guide, took around an hour and a half. That cut a large chunk out of our day, considering we had to leave the park mid-afternoon, but was well worth it. Starting with a descent down a massive staircase, the tour proceeds through large caverns and small passageways and gives a real appreciation for the beauty of the caves. The climax of the tour is an ascent onboard a specially built 1957 cable train which navigates the steep 1000 foot climb back to the surface.

By this time it was gone 11am, and there was just time for a ride on Fire in the Hole, a mix of dark ride and indoor rollercoaster, before catching one of the park's shows. This was set inside the Silver Dollar Saloon, a typical cabaret style bar which you see in the movies. The show featured dancing can-can girls and a slightly contrived but nevertheless well received story involving an evil gunslinger bursting into the bar in the middle of the act.

Hold up on the train rideThe park generously provided lunch - a large all-you-can-eat buffet in a nice air conditioned indoor restuarant. The staff there were superb, stopping for a friendly chat and going out of their way to make sure we were having a good day. In fact, the staff all over the park were notable for their kindness and genuine welcome that they were providing to visitors.

Our remaining time was quickly consumed trying out Flooded Mine, an indoor boat ride, and the traditional park train ride. Of course, being in cowboy country, the train ride wasn't a simple affair. The train got held up half way around and the passengers were robbed at gunpoint, in a short show which mercifully was humorous and much better executed than some of the others I have encountered. After a quick dash over to Outlaw Run, it was almost time to leave, with just a few minutes to ride the S&S Giant Swing and then run back up the hill to the park entrance and our awaiting coach.

More:  Silver Dollar City Day 6 Video

Six Flags St Louis

Friday 10th June 2016

Day 7 at Six Flags St Louis

The day began hot and humid, and although the humidity subsided it stayed hot into the afternoon. Luckily, Six Flags St Louis is definitely not among the worst Six Flags parks, so the day turned out to be very enjoyable.

2016 was the year of Virtual Reality rollercoasters, and Six Flags in particular became enamoured with the idea of retrofitting VR headsets to some of their older coasters. At Six Flags St Louis, Ninja, their Vekoma looper, had been given the VR treatment. This was to be my first VR coaster experience, and it wasn't a very pleasant one.

The problems started before we had even boarded the ride. The Samsung Gear headsets were not designed for the temperatures of a summer morning in Missouri. VR coasterNo sooner than a train full of riders had had their headsets fitted, one or more passengers would complain that their headset said it was overheating, which meant it had to be swapped out for another and they had to go through the palava of having a new one strapped to their head and readjusted. With all the hastle, it meant a train was only being dispatched about once every 10 minutes.

VR is in its infancy, so you can forgive the slightly low quality screen image, and the way it remained in sync with the movement of the ride was impressive. However, the overall experience was rather painful - the coaster itself was pretty rough, and the virtual reality headset meant it was impossible to see the track and anticipate the ride movements.

Luckily, Six Flags St Louis has a bunch of superior coasters to Ninja. There was the standard Batman clone typical of Six Flags parks - a nice smooth version of the B&M inverter. Mr Freeze Reverse Blast was a nice Premier LIM Shuttle Loop, where the train was accelerated backwards out of the station, through the course and up a vertical spike before traversing the course again in reverse (or forwards, depending on your point of view).

The real highlights for me though were the park's three wooden coasters - American Thunder, The Boss and Screamin' Eagle. American Thunder was just a damn good ride, The Boss was huge, but Screamin' Eagle was the best of the bunch. It's an old school woodie from PTC, and it's pure fun.

Santa's LodgeThe park also had a version of the Justice League: Battle for Metropolis dark ride which we had first experienced at Six Flags Great America a few days before. The St Louis version was inferior, with slower pacing and some of the effects didn't have the same edge as at Great America.

By 5pm it was time to leave, and we had just about managed to fit everything in. As well as the coasters, we tried a couple of flat rides including the park's Larson Loop which wasn't as bad as I had expected, and seen one of the shows which was small scale but decently done.

The coach took us through St Louis, giving us a view of the famous Arch, before another very long journey to our next hotel. It was not your typical chain hotel though. That night we stayed in Santa's Lodge, which is permanently decorated for Christmas. It was bold and in places tacky, but it was definitely Christmas ... reception looked as though Father Christmas himself had stood at the desk and sneezed tinsel and baubles everywhere.

More:  Six Flags St Louis Day 7 Video

Holiday World

Saturday 11th June 2016

Day 8 at Holiday World

Holiday World was one of several parks on the trip I had been very excited to visit, having heard much about it over the past few years. Our day started with a few minor hiccups, including our bus driver failing to show up (we had a new driver that day, and the old one had failed to tell him what time we were due to leave in the morning). This meant we had to walk from the hotel to the park - in reality only a short distance away, but it felt very un-American to actually travel on foot!

We were warmly greeted by the famous (to HoWoPo listeners at least) Paula when we arrived, and she took us on a "behind-the-scenes" walk to allow us to get first rides on the park's newest coaster, Thunderbird. I've had the chance to ride several B&M wing coasters, but Thunderbird is the first with a launch instead of a lift hill. Overall, it's my favourite of the ones I've ridden - the launch, together with the natural headchopper moments provided by the trees, and the smoothness of the ride make for a great experience.

ThunderbirdPrior to Thunderbird, the park's three big coasters were all woodies, and the largest of these is The Voyage. It's a huge ride, with the towering 160 foot lift hill visible from much of the park. Once trains have left the top of the lift, they disappear into the woodland and it feels like many minutes go by before they reappear, still hurtling at high speed into the final brakerun.

The queue for The Voyage was long, and by the time we got to the station the best part of an hour had passed. We made the decision that we may as well wait a little longer, and joined the front row queue. In hindsight, that was a mistake as the ride broke down and we had to wait for an engineer to come and then for test trains to be sent. This all made us rather late for lunch (again) but there was still plenty of food available in the park's picnic grove setting when we did finally arrive.

Following a quick cooldown on the rapids, the rest of our afternoon was spent riding the park's other two woodies - Raven and Legend - and then re-riding those and The Voyage several times.

Our next city stop was Louisville, Kentucky, which had been all over the news as Muhammad Ali's funeral had taken place there the previous day. Hotel rooms were at a premium, but luckily our group had been booked into the Comfort Inn months before ... unfortunately the hotel didn't think so, and when we arrived claimed no knowledge of our booking, even though our group leader presented them with paperwork to the contrary. They of course were full and didn't have twenty odd rooms to spare, but luckily one of our group members came to the rescue and found us alternative accomodation at the much nicer Holiday Inn up the road.

More:  Holiday World Day 8 Video

Kentucky Kingdom

Sunday 12th June 2016

Day 9 at Kentucky Kingdom

Rocky Mountain Contruction and their rollercoasters are the hottest thing in the coaster world right now, beloved by fans and parks alike (well, maybe Dollywood doesn't love them as much as everyone else just now). There's always a lot of chatter about their latest ride openings, so it's unusual that Kentucky Kingdom's new Storm Chaser has had relatively little of the limelight.

Kentucky Kingdom treated us to an ERS on the coaster prior to park opening. It's an awesome ride, and hard to see why it isn't better known, although I guess the marketing might of Six Flags is no match for them at this point.

Lightning RunThe park has an interesting history - it was bought from it's original owners by Six Flags but they couldn't make a go of it, and closed it down a few years ago. The original owners are now back in control and reopened it in 2014 with big plans for the future. Storm Chaser is obviously one of the new investments, but it follows just two years behind Lightning Run, a large hyper coaster from Chance. Lightning Run was also a lot of fun, with some amazing ejector seat airtime over some bunny hops near the end of the ride.

Less positive things can be said about T3, a Vekoma SLC retrofitted with new seats. Unfortunately, more comfortable seats don't solve the jarring, bashing and general beating up provided as a standard part of the SLC experience.

After lunch, the park kindly took us for a backstage tour and walked us through some of the areas and former Six Flags attractions that are currently off-limits to the general public. However, this was quite probably the hottest day of the entire trip, and as nice a gesture as it was, I was glad when the tour concluded and we were able to seek some shade from the intense midday sun, even if that did mean boarding the coach for another air-conditioning-lacking three hour journey.

More:  Kentucky Kingdom Day 9 Video

Kings Island

Sunday 12th & Monday 13th June 2016

Days 9&10 at Kings Island

We arrived at our hotel at around 7pm, and discovered that it was only a short walk up the road to Kings Island. Seeing as we had been furnished with Cedar Fair season passes a few days before at Worlds of Fun, a group of us decided we would visit the park for the evening, giving us a headstart on the following day.

Eiffel Tower at SunsetThat turned out to be a great idea - we were able to get on a whole load of rides in the relative coolness of the evening. Highlights included Bat, an Arrow suspended coaster like the original Vampire at Chessington; Banshee, the oversized B&M inverted coaster which fast became one of my favourites; and The Racer, a twin track racing woodie. Given my new-found OK-ish-ness with wind seekers, I allowed myself to be convinced to have a ride on Kings Island's version. I thought that at least if it was night time I couldn't see too much. In fact, seeing the parks lights laid out below was a spectacular view.

With a sprint across the park, we were able to make it to the end of the queue for The Beast just before the line closed for the night. As we waited, we managed to see the park's end of the night fireworks show. Let's say it wasn't the most spectacular display I've ever seen, and was rather small scale. Still a nice gesture, and it passed some of the time while we waited to board The Beast. The ride is one of the longest coasters in the world, although it's impossible to see the scale of it from within the park, as nearly the whole layout is obscured by woodland. This adds to the ride experience, diving off into the forest and racing through the trees. It's a wonderful wooden coaster, up there for me with Prowler out of all the woodies we rode on the trip.

It turned out that the walk from the back of the park, through the entrance, and to our hotel was quite lengthy. We arrived back around midnight, and opted for one of the microwave pizzas on sale in reception rather than venturing out for a late night meal. I think we cooked the pizza rather than the box, but the texture was very similar.

DiamondbackThe following day was sunny with a pleasant temparature. That, together with some fast passes, made for an easy and relaxing day. We re-rode the best of the rides we experienced the night before, and had plenty of time to try the rest of the rides on offer. Diamondback, Kings Island's B&M hyper coaster proved very popular, and we took full advantage of our fast passes to ride several times. We also had a chance to ride the elevator to the top of the park's one-third scale replica of the Eiffel Tower and take in the views.

Toward the end of the day we stopped off to watch Let It Rock, one of the park's shows which is performed on a stage inside a large indoor eating area. The singing abilities of the performers was a little mixed, and the overall atmosphere was impeeded by the potential audience wandering around munching food from polystyrene plates, but it was still entertaining enough.

At the end of the show, we figured we still had time for a couple more rides on Banshee. That turned into three rides, and another sprint across the park to make it back to the coach on time. Coaster trips get you fit!

More:  Kings Island Days 9&10 Video Let It Rock Show

Camden Park

Tuesday 14th June 2016

Day 11 at Camden Park

Camden Park is one of the last remaining Trolley Parks in the US - an amusement park built at the end of the now long-defunct street railway between Huntington, West Virginia and Ashland, Kentucky. We arrived at the park early, and had an ERS on their old fashioned Big Dipper.

Old fashioned is a good way to describe Camden Park. Most things in the park look like they have been there for years. It's a mix of authentic Americana and run-down ramshackle bits and pieces. It's OK and the staff seem to work hard, but it could do with a bit of cash spent to restore things to their former glory.

Big DipperThat said, there is investment going into the park, evidenced both by some new rides and the attention that has been given to the haunted house. The scenes inside have fairly recently been repainted by a professional artist, and it looks good. We were allowed to walk through the ride before it opened to the public so were able to get a look up close. There was much debate about whether it counted as a rollercoaster - with a small squint it is easy to see as an indoor wild mouse ... and the way the cars charge around the track is certainly wild.

After trying out the park's kiddie wooden coaster, we took a ride on the train. This must be one of the slowest park trains in existence: although it only circuits a small lake, the journey seemed to take most of the morning. It left us just enough time to take in the view from the chair lift and ride the Whip before lunch.

A decent lunch was necessary, as shortly after we departed on one of the longest coach journeys of the trip - around five and a half hours to Charlotte, North Carolina.

More:  Camden Park Day 11 Video Big Dipper POV Hawnted House POV Lil' Dipper POV

Carowinds

Wednesday 15th June 2016

Day 12 at Carowinds

We arrived at our hotel with storm clouds gathering overhead, but decided to try our luck with an evening trip to Carowinds since it was just across the road. Luck wasn't on our side, and the rain came just as we made our way toward the entrance. We had a quick walk around the park, but everything had closed. The optimistic among us decided to try and wait out the storm, while the rest of us headed back to the hotel for something to eat and to watch the lightning in the warm and dry.

Fury 325The following day began bright and sunny, although there were storms forecast for the afternoon so we thought it wise to make the most of the potentially small window we had. It was a bit of a shame, as Carowinds is a huge park and to see everything in a few hours was a bit of a race.

Carowinds skyline is dominated by not one but two huge steel beasts from B&M - Intimidator, built in 2010 and standing 232ft tall; and Fury 325 which followed five years later in 2015 and stands at a gigantic 325ft high. Both are great rides, although I didn't feel like Fury took advantage of the extra 100ft, and overall I thought Intimidator offered the better ride.

With the luck which had evaded us the previous night back with us, we managed to ride everything we wanted to and even had time to see the views from the top of the observation tower and grab a burger for lunch. However, the wind was beginning to pick up just as we left the park, so I think we made it without much time to spare. I'd like to revisit the park again on another trip, and have a bit more time to take in the atmosphere properly.

More:  Carowinds Day 12 Video

Dollywood

Wednesday 15th & Thursday 16th June 2016

Days 12&13 at Dollywood

After a journey through North Carolina, we crossed the border into Tennessee and travelled up into the beautiful Smoky Mountains, eventually arriving at our hotel in Pigeon Forge. We checked in and then made our way across town to Dollywood where we were welcomed and treated to slices from gigantic pizzas at Red's, one of their restaurants. While we were eating, the park's evening fireworks show began. Much more spectacular than Kings Island's effort, Dollywood's mixed some well chosen fireworks with hits from the Parton back catalogue.

Giant Pizzas at DollywoodAt 10pm the park closed to guests, and we were escorted through the darkened paths up to Wild Eagle, their B&M wing coaster for a night time ERS. This should have been on Lightning Rod, but that had broken down and needed a new motor which would not arrive until the next morning. Wild Eagle more than made up for the disappointment - flying through the dark cool evening was very pleasant, and seeing the vertical loop bathed in a purple floodlight looked amazing. The ride ops were great too, friendly and keen to chat with us and find out all about our trip.

We were back at the park early the next morning for an ERS on Thunderhead, their large wooden coaster. Thunderhead was a wonderful ride, fast and furious, but smooth enough to enjoy multiple re-rides - I managed 12 over the course of an hour or so.

Following the ERS, we were let loose in the park with the request that we met up back at the Lightning Rod entrance at 11:30 ... because, you know, wink wink ... no promises. A small group of us filled the time by stopping off to try some of the famous Cinnamon Bread - a delicious soft bread soaked in a mixture of sugar and cinnamon - and then took in rides on Blazing Fury (similar to Fire in the Hole at Silver Dollar City), Tennessee Tornado (an Arrow looping coaster which gave me a massive surprise at how smooth it was), and Firechaser Express (a family coaster with a stop mid-ride for an effects-laden firework explosion).

Lightning RodWe made our way over to Lightning Rod. Good to their word, Dollywood had pulled out all the stops and got the new motor installed and the ride was up and running ... but only for us. With a queue of interested onlookers growing outside the entrance, we were allowed a half hour exclusive session - the first ERS any group had been given on Lightning Rod.

The coaster is the first launched wooden coaster from RMC, which speeds the train up and over the lift hill, flinging it at high speed through the rest of the course. The speed and forces are immense - in some places too intense to the point it feels like the ride is tearing both itself and its passengers apart. An amazing experience though, so good that all of the problems that have plagued the ride and its launch system in its opening season are quickly forgotten as riders pop out of their seats at the top of the first drop. Following some lunch (not really needed for me, still full of cinnamon bread, but still very welcome!), we were lucky enough to be given the chance to walk around the behind the ride, getting the chance to take pictures of the first drop from a unique view and see just how quickly the train careers down it.

Dollywood still had two more coasters on offer. One was a small kiddie coaster with cars which made me feel a bit like Postman Pat riding around on it. The other was Mystery Mine, an uncomfortable Gerstlauer Eurofighter, although the theming elements went some way to make up for the pain. I'm glad we didn't have an ERS on it though.

TrainOur last major ride of the day was on the park's train. Over the course of the trip we got to ride on multiple trains, but no other was like Dollywood's. This one is a large sized steam engine which hauls a long line of carriages up to the top of a mountain and back down again on a 2½ mile round trip. Thankfully there is no gimmicky show in which the train is held up by robbers, although there is some "hilarious"(?) onboard commentary from the guard to accompany the views across the Smokies.

Dollywood has a reputation for high quality entertainment, and the show we saw - Dreamland Drive-In - was not a disappointment. At almost an hour long, it was full of hits from the 50s and 60s, performed by a very talented cast in a stage show that would not be out of place in London's West End.

Dreamland Drive-InBy the time the show was over, it was almost time to head back to the coach. We did, however, have time to visit Chasing Rainbows, a museum at the heart of the park dedicated to telling the life story of it's namesake, Dolly Parton. While throughout the rest of the park there are small Dolly touches but nothing over the top, this was a full on Parton assault on the senses. As with everything we saw at Dollywood though, it was done properly, with a lot of attention to detail. This was no glass display case stuck unlovingly in a corner. It was an expansive multi-room museum, with each area carefully themed toward a different part of Dolly's life so far.

And so our time at Dollywood drew to a close, far too early to have experienced everything the park had to offer. It's in the top set of theme parks for me, up there with Efteling and Europa Park as the best in the world. I very much hope that I'll be visiting again sometime.

More:  Dollywood Days 12&13 Video

Lake Winnepesaukah

Friday 17th June 2016

Day 14 at Lake Winnie

We arrived at Lake Winnepesaukah, or Lake Winnie as it is affectionately known by those of us who have trouble spelling the full version, ahead of opening and were treated to a half hour ERS on Cannon Ball, their wooden rollercoaster built by PTC. It's a nice layout, but a bit rough and jarring in places. After almost two weeks of constant abuse, that wasn't really what my aching body wanted, so I only managed four rides.

Boat ChuteAfter the ERS, we took the chair lift over the lake. This enabled us to take in the real beauty of the park - the lakeside location helps a lot, but the park is also very well kept. It has the feel of the American midway parks you see in the movies. In many ways it is similar to Camden Park, but everything is a lot better looked after.

One of the more historic rides is the Boat Chute, which was built in 1927 and is now the oldest Mill Chute still in operation in the United States. From the station, the boat floats through a very, very, (very), very long dark tunnel to reach the turnaround point. From here it climbs up a hill, ready to drop downwards into the lake for the splashdown finale. It might be old, but it still delivers a thrill. It's just a shame there's nothing to see in that long, long, long tunnel beforehand.

After a quick stop to grab some pizza for lunch, we reboarded the coach to travel towards the second park of the day, Alabama Splash Adventure ...

More:  Lake Winnepesaukah Day 14 Video

Alabama Splash Adventure

Friday 17th June 2016

Alabama Splash Adventure entrance in the stormFor us, Alabama Splash Adventure was certainly a park which lived up to its name. We arrived in the middle of a storm, so we were taken to wait inside rather than explore. The park kindly gave us pizza for dinner, and famed Pat Koch came to say hello.

We waited out the storm, and eventually the lightning passed and we were given an ERS on the park's wooden coaster, Rampage. It's quite similar to Oakwood's Megafobia, and was huge amounts of fun. I didn't have a chance to record any video as it was too wet and we were too busy getting in as many rides as possible.

Being with a group of coaster enthusiasts, it was inevitable that we would spot a kiddie coaster on the way out and ask to get a ride. Unfortunately, kiddie coasters, a train full of very large adults, and extremely wet weather do not mix well. The train was so heavy that it kept hurtling through the brakes and back up the lift hill rather than coming to a halt in the station, much to the horror of the ride op. His distress was made worse when he realised that this was all in full view of his boss, but she took it all in good humour as did the passengers and the onlookers, which somewhat quelled his anxiety. Eventually the train was brought to a stop on the lift hill, and its contents evacuated. That of course did not stop the rest of us wanting a go, although it was a definite one-adult-to-a-car policy!

More:  Alabama Splash Adventure

Six Flags Over Georgia

Saturday 18th June 2016

Day 15 at Six Flags Over Georgia

Our final night's hotel, the Comfort Inn in Lithia Springs, was by far the worst of the trip. It was undergoing a major refurbishment, and should probably have remained closed during the undertaking. We were given a "newly refurbished" room, so newly that it smelt strongly of paint, there were paint splashes all over the floor, the door wouldn't lock and the bath had yet to be replaced. I suspect the builders had legged it out of the room as they heard us coming up in the elevator. Luckily it wasn't much more than a place to sleep, and we left straight after breakfast to travel to the last park of the trip, Six Flags Over Georgia.

Given it was a busy June Saturday, we once again opted to buy flash passes, which made the whole day much more relaxing. We managed a couple of rides on Georgia Cyclone and Georgia Scorcher (a rather brutal B&M stand up) first off, before our alloted timeslot on the park's VR retrofit Dare Devil Dive Coaster.

Mind BenderThe choice of coaster to add VR to seems ridiculous. Dare Devil Dive Coaster is a Gertlauer Eurofighter, which means it doesn't start off with a great capacity. The addition of VR headsets and all the complications with fitting and adjusting them to each rider creates a disaster. Hourly capacity must be reduced to a couple of hundred. Although the actual ride experience was slightly more pleasant than at Six Flags St Louis, due to the more comfortable ride the Eurofighter gives, overall it still seems a very bad idea.

By far the best coaster in the park is Mind Bender, a Schwarzkopf looper which was built in 1978 but is still silky smooth. Goliath is a fun B&M hyper coaster, but unfortunately, Six Flags Over Georgia isn't overly blessed with great rollercoasters. Their Vekoma MK-1200 was terrible, as was Great American Scream Machine, a woodie which looks great but is rough to the point of being unrideable.

The park doesn't seem to get its fair share of love from its parent company, nor does it seem to love itself that much. Whereas both Great America and the park at St Louis proudly stuffed their shops full of Six Flags merchandise, there was not a park logo in sight in any of Georgia's retail outlets. It was an OK-ish park to spend the day at, but I won't be in a hurry to return. On the other hand, maybe we were just spoilt by the great lineup of parks which we had experienced over the previous two weeks.

And so the time came to leave and head off to the airport for the red eye flight back home. My experience was made slightly more pleasant thanks to an upgrade to business class at the gate. Not sure that did me any favours with the rest of the group stuck in Economy though!

More:  Six Flags Over Georgia Day 15 Video