Six Flags Astroworld may have been only four miles away from our hotel, but our intrepid organisers decided to leave a whole hour to get there. The reasoning was that rush hour in Houston wasn't likely to be any different than rush hour in any other major city, and indeed this proved to be right on the money. During the journey, our coach captain gave us a lecture about dealing with the media. Specifically, we were told that we could not under any circumstances criticise a ride on camera, as to do so would jeopardise the club's relationship with parks in general. This made a certain amount of sense, especially when we were given the multipurpose line to use. I couldn't help but wonder how often we'd have to describe a ride as a useful addition to the park!
When we arrived there were indeed members of the media waiting for us, though Andy Hine took charge of them for the most part. I didn't pay a huge amount of attention to the proceedings, but I did catch a line about how eighty five people had spent more than three thousand dollars to visit a lot of parks without knowledge of where they were going. This raises an interesting point; quite a number of us chose to find out the itinerary in advance, which does make me wonder how many people in the group were really in to the mystery aspect. My suspicion is not that many, though the only person who really knows that isn't saying.
Our morning began with an hour of exclusive ride time on Texas Cyclone (#116), a particularly photogenic wood coaster modelled on the famous ride in New York. It was telling that the wait time gradually got shorter as the session went on; though the ride was certainly fun, it was a bit aggressive so early in the morning. The back seat effectively finished my session off for me, thanks to some particularly heavy knocks in the track. While the session was in progress the park laid on a buffet breakfast for us, consisting of a goodly quantity of fresh muffins, and crucially for the Texas weather, a supply of ice cold water. There was also a complimentary T-shirt for all present, which was very much appreciated.
When the session came to an end the majority of the group headed in the same direction, the target being the one really unique coaster in this park. Ultra Twister (#117) is the only coaster of its kind operating outside of Japan. Roller Coaster Tycoon players will know this as a Heartline Twister coaster; for everybody else, the ride features unique six seater cars which can rotate around the riders heartline. This produces a unique sensation which is quite different to any coaster out there.
Unfortunately, this design comes with its trade-offs, chief of which is the inability of the cars to turn corners at all. The result is a very odd looking ride, with two long lengths of straight track stacked on top of each other. Vehicles begin their journey with a standard lift hill, followed by the first heartline roll and a brake section. This section then tilts backwards, dropping the cars onto the lower section, which features two more heartline rolls taken while facing backwards. The biggest difficulty with the ride, and probably the reason more don't exist, is that it is quite uncomfortable to ride. The biggest issue was the weight of the over the shoulder harness, which pinned me firmly into the seat almost to the point of restricting my breathing. Furthermore, the braking system at each end of the track felt roughly akin to a car crash, the stop being very sudden indeed. In short, though the coaster was unquestionably interesting, once was definitely enough.
Our next stop was a ride which has become my favourite stand up coaster to date. Batman The Escape (#118) was built by Intamin, and operated for a while at two other Six Flags parks before being installed here in 1993. It wasn't possible to be particularly enthusiastic about riding this, given my recent experiences of other stand up coasters. As such it was a very pleasant surprise to find that the expected headbanging was completely absent. The end result was a very rerideable stand up coaster, possibly the first known example in the universe!
XLR-8 (#119) was the second suspended coaster built by Arrow Dynamics. The first model, The Bat at Kings Island, was a prototype design and only operated for two years. The prototype was too aggressive for its own good, and was dismantled due to the number of replacement parts it required. The version here seems to have been the other extreme; the layout has been designed to be relatively gentle, with a very limited amount of swinging. However, it does have one unique feature, namely that the back four cars of the train face backwards, something which has been done on no other suspended coaster.
One of the questions that sprung to mind on boarding was whether the ride would still be comfortable with the trains reversed from what the designers had originally intended. On most coasters riders are pressed into the backs of their seats as the train covers the course; the over the shoulder restraints would be taking the strain here. However, as mentioned above, there simply wasn't any strain to speak of. This is not to say, however, that the layout was dull. Far from it; the ride was good fun, and in its present state is ideally suited for thrill seekers in training.
Greezed Lightnin' (#120) was my first Schwarzkopf-built shuttle loop coaster. This design, first installed in 1977, was the first successful launched coaster and has stood the test of time, with ten models still operating around the world. The one here is the oldest to be still operating in its original location and the fourth built overall. Schwarzkopf designed two different launch systems; a weight drop and a flywheel, and this version utilises the latter. Much to my surprise I really enjoyed this. It was impossible not to wonder why only ten were built.
It was at this point that Steven and Adam decided to ride SWAT, the new fly-swatter type ride from S&S. As the first installation of this design anywhere in the world it was certainly tempting to try, but in the end I decided to sit it out in deference to an unwilling stomach. While I waited I made the most of the photographic opportunities, catching several shots of the arm swinging at full speed. Adam looked a little queasy as he disembarked but still cheerfully remarked that the ride experience wasn't half as intense as it looked.
Serial Thriller (#121) marked the first useful addition to the park, and in this case it was indeed useful. The one hour long queue held quite a number of people who might otherwise be clogging up the better coasters. One of those better coasters was Viper (#122), my first experience of a Schwarzkopf Looping Star (a real one this time!). The dispatch interval here was on the far side of pathetic, with one train going out every five minutes, but it was nevertheless worth waiting for once. It was particularly interesting to see most of the first drop enclosed in a tunnel, which looked more than a little odd.
We ticked off both Mayan Mindbender (#123) and Serpent (#124) before moving over to Diablo Falls. This attraction was new this year and proudly boasts of being the tallest spinning rapids ride in the world. Much to my surprise this turned out to be fantastic fun; the boat spun at an impressive rate as we moved down the slide, and at the end one person gets truly drenched from the splashdown at the end. Everyone else gets reasonably wet from smaller splashes, not to mention an evil geyser which fires just as the boat goes past it!
Following a lunch break, we made the fateful decision to ride the Tidal Wave shoot-the-chutes ride. This was to be my first experience of one of thise rides, having always declined them in the past because I didn't want to end up shivering for hours. The ninety degree heat in Houston neatly removed that excuse, and besides I felt like cooling down. The experience of the ride proved to be somewhat different than what I'd envisaged. When the water is thrown into the air riders spend a good two and a half seconds with it pouring down on top of them. It wasn't actually that different from diving into a swimming pool, though in that situation you probably wouldn't be fully dressed! I'd also never realised that a ride operator has to sit at the top of the ride to release the boat manually, so that the area at the bottom is fully clear.