Our second consecutive weekend in mainland Europe began with an early morning flight to Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, a substantial airport in south-eastern France located just three kilometres away from the border with Switzerland. The facility is divided into designated French and Swiss sections, and arriving passengers can select the customs checkpoint of their choice immediately after baggage reclaim. All important facilities landside exist in duplicate, not least completely separate car parks and access roads divided by a high railing. There is even a passport control facility landside so that arriving passengers who make the wrong choice can get to the people they're supposed to meet.
We were met on arrival by our friends Bruno and Anita, who were remarkably understanding given that our flight was almost an hour late. Enthusiasts have been coming up with entertaining airport signs for years now, but we were definitely not expecting to be greeted by printed sheets reading 1103 and 2335. It would have been interesting to interrogate other arrivals as to what they thought these meant; if I'd seen them out of context my immediate thought would have been 24601 and Les Miserables. Minutes later, as we got into their car, I realised that the cumulative coaster count among our group was in excess of six thousand, perhaps providing slight justification for the demented weekend itinerary we had planned.
Parc du Petit Prince
24th June 2017
The Little Prince is a phenomenally successful novella first published in 1943 by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It presents the story of a young boy from Asteroid B-612 through the eyes of a pilot who has crash-landed in the Sahara desert, and is memorable more than anything else for its elaborate descriptions of the strange and narrow-minded world of grown-ups. Perhaps unsurprisingly Parc du Petit Prince attracts a young audience, though it is well worth visiting regardless of age for its unique attractions: a pair of tethered balloon rides and a bar-in-the-sky manufactured by Aérophile S.A., the French company that owns the park.
The entrance walkway is enclosed and lit only by bright coloured planets and projections of the prince. At the far end guests end up in a circular space with a statue of the prince that marks the heart of the park, with the various attractions laid out in concentric rings around that point. There was a definite sense that the designers were fond of symmetry (or perhaps Roller Coaster Tycoon); even the car parks looked like they could have been laid out with an etch-a-sketch or spirograph.
Balloon rides cannot operate in high winds, and a sign at the ticket office warned us that today was an orange day, meaning one where the weather was expected to be problematic. The person on the gate told us that the Ballon de l'Allumeur de Réverbère (the lamplighter) had already been shut down due to it being in an exposed area of the park, but that the Ballon du Roi was operating for the moment at least. We didn't need to be told twice, and headed directly there.
Both balloons are installations of the AERO30NG, a design that can be found at the Disney resorts in Florida and Paris, as well as at several other parks around the world. The rides use helium rather than a heating mechanism, and can nominally lift a little over ten thousand pounds to a height of one hundred feet. The gondola is rated for up to thirty passengers, which gives enough margin for a portion of those to be of above average weight. The experience is not drastically different to that of an observation tower and the throughput is limited by the fact that each cycle takes at least five minutes to complete, but that can be solved (as it has been here) by installing more than one unit!
Our second stop was at La Tyrolienne, a swing on a rail similar to the Telepherique at Parc Saint Paul. Each of us in turn pulled the small seat to the highest point of the ride before climbing on board and coasting our way back to ground along a layout not altogether different to the top level of a Wild Mouse. Though officially suitable for those between five and fourteen we nevertheless enjoyed the ride immensely, not least because our adult weights ensured swinging that was far more aggressive than the original designers would have intended.
The highlight of the morning for me was Aerobar du Buveur. At its most basic level, this "ride" consists of a fifteen seats around a table that are lifted to a height of thirty-five metres. There is space for a "bartender" in the middle, though he is there as a tour guide, as food and drink is sold at a shop in the queue. Each position at the table has a dedicated bottle holder, though the experience is sufficiently smooth and steady that items placed on the table are not likely to fall under normal circumstances. (We'd missed out on a similar attraction earlier in the year during our Morocco trip, so it was nice to finally experience one today.)
With everything more interesting out of the way it was finally time to ride Serpent (#2336), a brand new Zierer Force Two and the second version of the type in France. This ride was as perfect as any production family coaster could be, with smooth tracking and a mid-course tunnel (complete with mist machine) that was themed to look like a hollowed tree trunk. Megan said her only complaint was that the ride wasn't longer, but that was easily fixed by going back for a second lap.
We were just about to leave for our next destination when we spotted signage for the Volcano of Passion, and with a name like that we simply had to take a look. The first thing we found inside the door was a set of toilets, an ever present help in times of trouble. Sadly the remainder of the building failed to live up to whatever image we had in mind, as it consisted of a large soft play area for children and a hall of mirrors, though on reflection that was probably just as well given the target audience.
25th June 2017
Our second stop was an alpine coaster located just off the D430 in the mountains to the north-west of Parc du Petit Prince. The GPS coordinates we had for Markstein Grand-Ballon were slightly misplaced, but a quick check with RCDB revealed that the correct location was a further five kilometres along the road that we were already on. Minutes later the expected silver track came into view, followed in short order by someone in a blue jacket moving downhill at speed.
Tickets for Luge Sur Rail were €5 for the "pilot" and €1 for the passenger, and given that Megan and I decided to ride together. Our combined weight should have made for a faster journey, but the Wiegand-built track was fitted with automatic brakes that prevented our sled picking up speed. The result was honestly fairly boring, and though the track length was respectable enough we decided against spending our hard-earned money on a second lap.
La Bresse Hohneck
24th June 2017
La Bresse Hohneck is first and foremost a ski resort, and given that it wasn't a huge surprise to find much of the facility inactive on a Saturday in the middle of the summer. There were perhaps twenty cars in the lot, and a good portion of those almost certainly belonged to staff. If we'd travelled on our own we'd likely have gone to the main entrance, but Bruno and Anita had visited before and pointed us towards a staircase heading almost directly to Schlitte Mountain.
The contrast with the ride we'd ridden earlier in the day could not have been more pronounced. Despite its name rhyming with a common obscenity, this installation (also by Wiegand) was a great ride. There was no automatic braking at all, as witnessed rather dramatically when we saw two sleds collide, and with a clear track in front of us we were able to build up considerable momentum. The turns were powerful and intense, and there was even some passable airtime along the way. The track length was quite a bit shorter than its neighbour, and the ticket price was higher at €6.50 combined, but we all agreed that the experience was far better value for money.
24th June 2017
Two years ago Megan and I visited a pair of zipline coasters in Australia and came away very impressed with the calibre of the experience. While the genre remains relatively uncommon a number have popped up around the world in places as diverse as South Korea and the Ukraine. Bol d'Air jumped on the bandwagon last year with the installation of Bol d'Air Line, the first ride of its type on France. Readers attempting to retrace our steps are advised to make timed bookings in advance, as the €35 tickets often sell out.
As with the versions in Australia it was necessary for us to carry our own equipment to the start point. However the approach was somewhat different here; instead of giving us things to carry a member of staff used carabiners to attach the various accoutrements to our harnesses, and to be blunt, this wasn't comfortable. The shoulder straps provided were thin, and they had a tendency to slip while also digging into our shoulders. The ten minute walk up hill felt a bit like an endurance contest, and it didn't have to be; the equipment was small enough that it should have been possible to carry it uphill in a carrier bag and install it in situ.
That said, the ride was definitely worth the effort. The lengthy course was considerably more aggressive than we'd expected, starting with a descending 720° helix with a height differential of perhaps thirty feet, and continuing with tight turns and sharp descents. As the speed picked up I began to swing more and more, and there were several moments of weightlessness culminating in one where the obligatory hard hat actually hit the rail above me with a thump. My weight was (and is) quite a long way below the maximum allowed for the ride, so I can only imagine what the experience might have been like for someone on the limit.
The experience was considerably more thrilling than most roller coasters, and while I'd prefer a cheaper price the reality is that only one person can be on the line at at time, meaning a best case throughput of no more than fifteen guests per hour. While the capacity issue could likely be resolved using a blocking system I don't think I'd advocate that, as a mid course halt of any kind would terminally hobble the out-of-control sensation. While I'm not about to start counting zipline coasters I think I'm going to make more of an effort to track them down.
Foire Saint-Jean à Strasbourg
24th June 2017
Our final stop of the evening was in the city of Strasbourg. There was no car parking anywhere near the fairground, and after about twenty minutes of driving in circles we gave up and ensconced ourselves in a park and ride facility within walking distance. There was an abandoned yet still presentable pair of shoes on the wall beside where we parked, and I found myself wondering whether there was an interesting story that led to them ending up in that location.
The reason for our visit was a chance to renew acquaintance with Super Railway, described by me back in 2014 as giving a far better sense of being out of control than anything else I've ridden in recent years. Sadly the ride was being operated with trim brakes tonight, and though there were occasional flashes of the brilliance of years past the majority of the layout was in the "good but not outstanding" category. There was still some airtime, augmented considerably by the lack of any restraints, but none of the extreme ejector moments I remembered.
There were two Big Apples at the fair too, perhaps unsurprisingly the same ones present at my last visit. Goulis (Coppier) was exactly as I remembered it, even down to the sprayed scent of candy floss on the third lap. Big Apple (Villette) was under new ownership, having previously been operated by Naisse, but it looked and felt as it had before. The one oddity was the pricing; individual tickets were €3, and you could buy six for €10. There was no special pricing available for four, so we took the larger number and handed two of them to a young child who was absolutely thrilled, bestowing Megan with a complimentary hug!
The only other ride for us tonight was Kamak, a large transportable Tren Fantôme with spinning cars. The standard of presentation was far ahead of the norm for rides of this type, with quality theming that wouldn't have been out of place in a permanent installation. The whole ride experience was busy; every second or two there was either a noise or something popping out at the car, and a ilve actor in a gorilla costume jumped at the car several times. The only slight oddity was an outdoor section with screens that were, for whatever reason, showing pictures of sea life when we rolled past; one would have thought that horrors from the depths of hell would have been more appropriate?