Prologue17th August 2006
Lots of small regional airports could learn from Biarritz Airport. Being able to arrange a rental car while waiting for your luggage to be unloaded may sound like a small thing, but it really isn't; it provides for a major time saving. As it was, I had car keys in my hand just as the luggage carousel started to move, and ten seconds later my suitcase was the first off the plane. The net result was being on the road less than fifteen minutes after landing despite having checked baggage, probably the fastest I've ever been able to escape from a commercial airport.
The only problem was that George was due to land in an airport some two hundred kilometers away, though at least that journey was almost entirely on motorway. Fuel economy is often not that impressive when driving at 130km/h, but this particular Opel Corsa managed to use just under three gallons to cover the distance, thanks in no small part to a sixth gear.
Walibi Sud-Ouest17th August 2006
When one approaches Walibi Aquitaine from the Bordeaux direction the logical route to follow is the A62 motorway. The exit required is, in all seriousness, for the village of Condom, though if you follow the signs for there you're f... okay, well, you've just taken a wrong turning. The village in question is about twenty miles from the park, so if you do find yourself there it is probably a cock-up.
There was a period of time when the Walibi chain was owned by Six Flags, and this heritage was very much in evidence, both in the charge for parking (€4) and in the ticket price (€24). The former was, however, waived for those arriving late in the day, which has to be a change made under the new management. As big theme parks go the ticket price isn't particularly high, but when you consider that it is one of the most expensive parks in France, one has to wonder how they get away with it. The answer probably isn't because coaster enthusiasts travel long distances to visit. The three coasters are, after all, production designs that can be ridden in many other parks around the world.
My impressions of the park were, on the whole, positive. Though overpriced, it is clear that money has been spent both on ride maintenance and landscaping. The layout was a little on the confusing side in places, especially over by the log flume and mouse coasters, but this is a nitpick. For the most part, the place was spotlessly clean, with shiny new paint in places.
There is probably no such thing as a bad tivoli coaster, and as a large model Cocinnelle (#887) ran as expected. On the other hand, before visiting this park both of us felt that there was probably no such thing as a good boomerang. This theory has been disproved by means of Boomerang (#888). We could tell something was different even as we sat in the trains, which had a somewhat different seating angle to normal, tilted back about fifteen degrees. The major effect of this was to make the reverse spike seem more steep than usual. Perhaps it was this also which completely eliminated headbanging; who knows? Whatever the case, this was a coaster we could have reridden all morning, and when have you ever heard me say that about a boomerang?
The Zig Zag (#889) was also very good indeed, so much so that we rode twice. A third circuit might have been on the cards too had the weather not caved in in style. Interestingly, the rides were kept running despite the fact that the park began to empty of its own accord; those dressed in full waterproof gear could have continued to enjoy themselves with walk on conditions for the remaining park hours. We decided, however, that we might as well hit the road, as there was a long drive ahead.
Pirat Parc17th August 2006
Pirat Parc is the official name of a summer fair that runs in Gruissan, on the southern coast of France. In previous years, this park had been temporary home to an obscure travelling coaster by the name of R2000, and we were hoping that it might be present once again. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case, its place having been taken by the altogether unremarkable Skyways Roller Coaster. This ride had previously operated at Brean Leisure Park in England. Interestingly, the new owners had made no attempt to disguise this whatsoever, with the Brean stickers still present on the back of each train. Surely it is bad politics for a travelling ride in France to openly flaunt its English ancestry?
The other coaster, Big Apple (#890), featured an illuminated name sign in English, indicating similar provenance. This one, however, did not originate from Brean, and at the time of writing I've no idea where it began its career. If anyone from Pirat Parc is reading this perhaps you might let me know?
French Hotels17th August 2006
When booking travel my usual instinct is to book something from the Holiday Inn chain. The reason is three fold; first, one knows generally what to expect; second, sticking with the same chain provides loyalty bonuses, in this case more than 40,000 points this year alone; finally, the staff almost invariably speak English. Occasionally, however, there is no suitable hotel nearby and one is forced to scavenge around the local chains. Rather than go trawling myself, I elected to make a booking with Hotels.com. This involved prepaying for our reservation, but this wasn't a big deal.
Unfortunately, we had made the fateful decision to book into the Hotel Balladins in Villeneuve-les-Béziers, where the staff go home at 10:00pm. Our reservation did not mention this minor detail anywhere. There was an electronic check-in machine available outside, but it would not accept either my credit card or my reservation number. In short, having arrived at our hotel at 10:15pm, surely not an unusual occurrence, we were unable to enter our prepaid room, and were forced to make alternate plans. Hotels.com told me later that the hotel said they were available to check us in (they were not) and consequentially that we would not be refunded. I'd encourage everyone to think twice before booking with these clowns again.
This brings me neatly to another problem. Les Béziers is a resort area, where hotels typically need to be booked in advance. The first three we tried were all full. Fortunately we struck lucky on the fourth attempt, though only just; it was 11:15pm at this stage, and the reception area in this hotel closed at 11:30pm. While check in was in progress, I made my customary scan of the brochures in the hotel foyer. Rather than a brochure for either of the next days parks, staring me in the face was a brochure for Euro Park, a fairground affair with a large permanent coaster that somehow had slipped through my planning. Better yet, it was open until 2:00am, and was only ten kilometers away. All thoughts of sleep forgotten, we got back in the car.
Euro Park17th August 2006
On first appearance, Euro Park looked like a large travelling fun fair. However, as hinted above, it is home to quite a few permanent attractions, which are present all year round, though they only operate during the summer. Chief among these was the Vekoma-built Euro-Loop (#891), a fairly standard double loop, double corkscrew affair. Rides that operate only in the evening hours invariably come with colourful lighting packages, and this one was no exception. The track itself was a bright purple, illuminated by chasing neon lights. The single train was a mixture of luminous yellow and orange. The combination should have been utterly hideous, but for some reason the reverse was true; the ride looked fantastic, not least due to its positioning, with two corkscrews going straight over the main park midway.
Astonishingly, this ride turned out to be the second butter smooth Vekoma in one day. This was in many ways a relief, as this is the first full size coaster I've ever seen where passengers get two full circuits per ride. The train approaches the station without the brakes engaging, and the operator takes five seconds out from his apparently serious phone conversation (judging by facial expression, at any rate) to say, in that special fairground operator voice, en continue...
Possibly the most impressive thing about the ride, however, was the ridiculously quick loading cycle. This is a definite argument for all roller coasters being run on a pay per ride basis; when every patron is additional revenue things suddenly take on a great deal more urgency. Passengers were unloading even before the train came to a complete stop, and the next train was loaded, locked, and dispatched in less than twenty seconds. If they can do it here, why can't other parks?
There were two additional portable coasters present, neither worthy of particular comment. First off was Grand Huit (#892), a Galaxi-style ride, followed in short order by a standard big apple coaster, La Pomme (#893). This was not the same unit as Le Pomme, which also travels in France; it seems like there are male and female apples in this country. Either that, or one of the rides is owned by a coaster counter, who aims to keep things simple for enthusiasts. Seems unlikely to me, but who knows?
Most of the other attractions were standard fare, but there is one worthy of note. Though we didn't try it, there was a two story mirror maze, the first either of us had seen anywhere.