Day five of our trip was deliberately planned as a relaxed day, insofar as it started and ended at the same hotel just twenty minutes drive from Kings Dominion. That gave us the opportunity for a lie-in, a rare treat on a coaster holiday, and we made the most of things by not setting an alarm, safe in the knowledge that an accidental sleep until lunch time would still leave more than long enough for Megan to tick off the six credits she needed. As things turned out we woke naturally just after nine, giving us enough time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast while still getting to the park only a few minutes after the posted opening.
Our visit began at Dominator, the B&M floorless coaster that once operated at Geauga Lake. Eight years ago I described what was then a newly relocated ride as looking stunning, and it was even better today as neatly manicured grass had grown around the support structure. The track looked to have been repainted recently too, making the sixteen year old hardware look brand new. Our sole ride today was in the back row, and from there the sequence of inversions was negotiated well, and while there was a small amount of head banging following the mid course brake it wasn't severe enough to impede enjoyment.
There was one slightly curious quirk of the installation that I feel compelled to comment on, namely the barriers around the track. The main ride area was located behind a tall safety fence, as is standard in parks around the world (Wonder Island notwithstanding), but some of the low to ground portions had a secondary fence of similar design. I found myself wondering about the purpose of these backups; after all, were a miscreant to scale the outer fences they would likely be able to jump the inner ones too, as was seen last year at Cedar Point. My initial thought was that they were installed to allow landscaping to take place without closing down the ride, but it seems unlikely that insurance companies would allow anyone to be inside the "hot" area during ordinary operation.
Though I didn't realise it until much later, it turned out that we had begun our day with the best steel coaster in the park, which we followed up with the best wood, namely the family-sized Woodstock Express. Only one train was in use today and operations were best described as unhurried, but the twenty-five minute wait passed quickly enough. We decided to shoehorn ourselves into row four rather than wait a few extra cycles for front, and from that location the ride was excellent. There wasn't a lot of space with two adults in the same car, but the buzz bar restraints meant that we managed some passable airtime on our journey around the glorious blue-coloured track.
We made a brief stop at Boo Blasters on Boo Hill en route to Avalanche, the only Mack Bobsled in the United States and the second oldest installation worldwide. It was amusing in a somewhat tragic way to note the difference in efficiency between this ride and the version at Europa Park that runs as many as five trains; the operators here couldn't quite manage to keep two going efficiently. The first half of the layout was uninspired, consisting of just one long descending left turn taken at a moderate pace, but the section after the block brake was much better, with around twenty-five seconds of descent punctuated by numerous changes of direction. I'd happily have ridden again, but my desire to do so slowly evaporated as we spent almost five minutes on the brake run waiting for the train in front of us to clear the station.
We decided to wait for the front seat on Volcano: The Blast Coaster, which meant a three quarter hour wait caused by a combination of one train operation and disabled riders, and before I go any further with this report I'd like to offer some thoughts on the latter. As a general rule I'm in full support of parks doing all that they can to accommodate those with special needs, but today it felt like the system was being abused as group after group came up the exit ramp and took the front rows of the train, often with their families in tow. Not all of these people appeared to have genuine issues, too; we noted one young lady with a leg in a cast who was able to walk unaided (on the cast) up the ramp. I'm not suggesting for a moment that these riders should be excluded from the front seat, but it wasn't at all fair for us to have to wait multiple extra cycles in order to accomodate them. Perhaps a good compromise would be to allow access to middle rows only via the exit, and front/back seats via the "Fast Lane" merge point?
The ride itself was quite simply awful. Thirteen years ago I described the back seat as suffering from significant vibration, and that awkwardness had spread to the front seat today, where it was accompanied by severe head banging. The layout started out well enough with two powerful LIM launches and a roll-over inversion, but the rest of the course was remarkably dull, consisting of three awkward barrel rolls punctuated by moderate speed turns. I've no doubt that my overall opinion of the ride was impacted by the poor tracking and operational issues, but even still there was no doubt in my mind that we'd just ridden a coaster that was long past its sell by date.
We were not hugely enthusiastic about riding Flight of Fear after a poor experience on the Kings Island version two years ago, but as it turned out we need not have worried. The contortionism required to get into the train wasn't a particularly auspicious start to the experience, but things picked up from there. The launch felt good, and the tracking from that point onwards was respectable enough, if a little bouncy in places. I noticed music playing in the background as we worked our way around the tangled layout, and while that might always have been there it's not something I've picked up on before now. I was impressed by how well the ride was running considering that it will be twenty years old next year.
As we were disembarking we overheard a middle-aged man saying that he thought it was time to go ride a boring ride. Someone asked what he meant, and he clarified: "it's themed to NASCAR, so it must be boring". He was referring of course to Intimidator 305, the Intamin-built giga coaster described by me six years ago as an engineering failure and an oversized turd. At that time the almost-new ride had a magnetic trim brake extending one third of the way down the first drop which cut around twenty miles per hour off the top speed, yet even with that many riders were still blacking out in the first turn due to excess forces. Worse yet, the trains featured rigid overhead restraints utterly unsuited to a coaster with sharp direction changes, causing severe head banging and numerous guest complaints.
The hardware saw two significant upgrades in 2010. In early June, a few weeks after my visit, the trains were retrofitted with soft restraints designed to improve comfort levels. Then, at the end of the year, the black out turn was reprofiled in order to reduce its intensity, thus allowing the removal of the trim brake on the drop. A smaller magnetic brake installed part way around the course was left in place however, demonstrating again (as if it were needed) that the designers got their calculations badly wrong.
Despite some misgivings I was looking forward to giving the ride a second chance today, and I decided to throw caution to the wind by selecting the back row, which for some reason had a short wait. From that location the first drop was simply incredible, as I was lifted out of my seat for almost the full descent to ground level. For me however that was the highlight of the overall experience. My vision was noticeably impaired in the ensuing turn, something that the upgrade was supposed to fix, and there was a similar moment as we approached a mid-course airtime hill. Megan believes that strong forces on coasters are commendable, and she's not the only one in the enthusiast community to hold that point of view, but my own take is that there's a happy medium here; being pinned into your seat is one thing, but having your sight impacted even temporarily is quite another. The experience was definitely not something I'd classify as rerideable, though I did enjoy the high speed low-to-ground turns with the new restraints.
Nevertheless we returned for two front seat rides at the end of the day, and while those were great I felt once again that the intensity was just that little bit too high for comfort. The best description I can come up with as I write this report a few weeks later is to describe the ride as a "Marmite" coaster, being something that you either love or hate. The word "hate" is a bit strong to describe my views of Intimidator 305, but the overly-aggressive layout means that it wouldn't place in my top one hundred list, despite the fact that just about every other coaster that exceeds eighty miles per hour does.
Our next stop was at Backlot Stunt Coaster, a ride that I'd really enjoyed eleven years ago when it was brand new and themed to The Italian Job. Unfortunately the experience today was far short of what it once was; the launch felt weak, and the ascending helix next to the parking garage structure was actively rough. The standard of tracking for the rest of the course wasn't particularly good, and the majority of the effects on the mid course brake were not working. It felt very weird to hear the recorded sound of gunfire coming from a stationary helicopter whose bullets were apparently having no effect on anything in the immediate vicinity.
We caught a quick ride on the imaginatively named Drop Tower before heading to Rebel Yell, now one of just eight wood coasters worldwide to feature two independent parallel tracks. I found myself thinking about the five examples that have closed in the years that I've been an enthusiast, and about which extant model might be next to go. The general appearance of this one suggested that it might be close to the front of the line, especially in the track sections between the station and the base of the lift hill, but despite that the comfort level was fairly typical for a vintage wood coaster. The red track was noticeably smoother than the blue, though that may well have been because the train on the latter was traversing the course at a higher speed, winning the race each time with several seconds to spare.
The park is home to one of the few giant wheels in the Cedar Fair family, and as befits a major corporate park, Americana is fitted with seat belts, despite the general consensus in the industry that this is completely pointless. The photo opportunities from the heights were somewhat limited, but we did manage to capture a nice overview of Rebel Yell for the files. We went from there to the nearby Windseeker, memorable chiefly for the overhead view of the remains of Hypersonic XLC, the fifteen million dollar air-launched coaster that went to the scrapheap after just seven seasons despite having what remains to this day the fastest acceleration of any coaster in the western hemisphere. The ride's early demise was likely driven both by rider comfort issues and the unreliable launch system which was well known to be a maintenance nightmare.
Our next stop was at what Megan described as an "oh, do I have to?" credit, namely Ricochet, an extended Mack mouse of the same design found at the various Legoland parks, albeit with retrofitted regulation Cedar Fair seat belts that somehow are necessary here despite the exact same cars running all over the world without them. The ride was a typical mouse with moderate laterals, and while some of the brake segments were more abrupt than I'd like, the ride was considerably more thrilling than Coast Rider (though to be fair most things are).
I'd not bothered to ride Grizzly on my last few visits to the park, and in fact had completely forgotten the layout when we boarded the train in row two. The first section of the ride reminded me very much of The Beast, especially after we climbed out of the first drop into a slow turnaround. The remainder of the course was a completely different animal, though, consisting of airtime hills blended with turns that threw us towards the side of our seats. The layout was certainly thrilling, though it would be remiss of me not to note that the tracking was by far the roughest of the three operational wood coasters at the park, delivering an involved ride that will definitely need some major work during the off-season.
We hadn't made any particular plans to catch a show today, but our path took us right past the Kings Dominion Theater just minutes before Cirque Imagine was due to start, and the opportunity to enjoy half an hour of air conditioned comfort was too good to resist. The production was developed for the park by Les Productions Haut Vol, a Quebec-based company that has also done a lot of work for Cirque du Soleil, and the influence of the latter was very obvious in what was a superb performance, well beyond the norm for an amusement park show.
We took a series of overhead photographs from the Eiffel Tower before heading to Anaconda, the ageing Arrow looper that had been closed when we passed it earlier in the day. I can't say that I'd have been heartbroken to miss it entirely, but Megan's love of all things Arrow made it an obligatory hit. The first section of the layout was almost pleasant, with a twisted first drop, a tunnel, and a vertical loop negotiated without particular issue. I was right on the verge of saying something complimentary when we hit the next inversion with an awkward sideways thump, and from that point on the tracking reminded me very much of what it had felt like when one of the shock absorbers failed on my car. A slow turnaround after the mid-course brake was remarkably clunky, and though the subsequent double corkscrew was reasonable enough I wasn't sorry when we hit the final brakes.