It took six hours to drive to Martin's Fantasy Island from Columbus Ohio. The journey was exhausting for two reasons; first, my rental car didn't have cruise control; second, the view out of the window was more or less the same for virtually the entire journey. Though American freeways are well maintained they are incredibly boring to travel on, especially when one has to keep to speed limits well below what would be normal in Europe. It was a relief to move onto small roads towards the end of our journey, and even more of a relief when signage for the park began to appear.
Martin's Fantasy Island
11th August 2005
Martin's Fantasy Island is a small park located on Grand Island in upstate New York, just five miles away from Niagara Falls and the border between the United States and Canada. Since 1994 it has been owned by Martin DiPietro, a former travelling showman who decided to purchase a park as an alternative to being constantly on the road. Today the place retains the feel of a fairground, as almost all of the attractions are portable units that remain on their original trailers. There are a few permanent installations in the mix, however, including Silver Comet (#525), a wood tracked coaster from Custom Coasters International. Needless to say we elected to start our visit there.
My eye was immediately caught by a large sign at the queue entrance stating that glasses were permitted on board, but only when secured by a strap; those without their own could either buy one or make use of a storage shelf in the station. This eminently sensible policy is something that I wish all parks would adopt, as it strikes a sensible balance between safety and rider comfort. My glasses were ready to go, and with a free choice of seat I decided to tempt fate by taking the back car on the grounds that an aggressive ride would be a great way of loosening up after such a long drive. I wasn't disappointed; the layout was intense and thrilling and the track was in as-new condition, resulting in a superb ride.
Our second stop was at Crazy Mouse (#526), a Zamperla-built version of the spinning mouse design pioneered by Reverchon in the mid-nineties. The ride looks virtually identical to the standard model, with the only obvious visual difference being a re-engineered restraint that apparently reduces the minimum height requirement somewhat. On riding, however, it was immediately apparent that the cars were moving far slower than usual as each block brake slowed the car to walking pace. I timed our lap at two minutes and fifteen seconds, more than thirty seconds longer than the norm, and throughout that journey our car barely spun at all. The ride was beyond dull, and though the changes do make it more family friendly I'd argue that anyone over the age of six would be bored by it. We watched a few other cars from ground level just to make sure that we hadn't been unlucky, and all were just as slow.
We completed a walk around the park, but decided against doing any other rides. The only attraction that we'd have liked to do was the Dare Devil tower, but glasses were not permitted and that was that. It was tempting to enquire at guest services about the disconnect between this policy and that of the coaster, given that a ride with only vertical forces would surely be less likely to throw a loose object than one with laterals, but in the end we decided that we wouldn't gain anything. Instead, we decided to conclude our visit with two more laps on Silver Comet.
11th August 2005
Crossing the border proved to be relatively headache free, though within moments of driving in the Niagara Falls area I began to wonder why anybody would bother. The sight before me felt like Blackpool without the class, or Las Vegas without the charm. It was depressing to see gaudy colours everywhere, and it was a nasty shock to discover that fuel for the car was at least three times the price it had been in the USA, making me wish I'd taken the time to fill before crossing. The pedestrians, of which there were an impressively large number, appeared entirely oblivious to cars, and I nearly hit a group that walked directly in front of me without looking.
In an ideal world we'd have begun our visit to Marineland with some refreshing beverages, but this option was off the table with me as a designated driver and both my passengers being under age. Instead we did the next best thing, heading directly for the nearest coaster, in this case a small tivoli with the functional but unimaginative name of Tivoli Coaster (#527). With such a small ride it was unlikely that there'd be any measurable difference between seats, but James and Andrew decided to queue for the back anyway.
With that cleared, we made the long trek over to Dragon Mountain (#528), which has been the signature attraction in the park for twenty two years. When built it was the longest steel coaster in North America, and though it has fallen to sixth place in the intervening years it remains an impressively long ride. The layout starts with a neatly hidden fifty-seven metre lift that uses the terrain to great effect, never rising more than a few feet from the ground. At the apex there is a turn and a steep drop into two consecutive vertical loops that are handled well. Unfortunately from that point onward the ride seems to peter out, with well over a minute of gentle descent that really doesn't do much of anything. Though there are a few tunnels on the route they are negotiated too slowly to be thrilling. It is only at the end that passengers are woken up again with a so-called "bowtie" element that features two back to back inversions.
The biggest problem with the coaster is its pacing. The start and end are fine, but one could comfortably read a book and drink a coffee in the middle section, and that isn't a good thing on what is supposed to be a major thrill ride. It feels very much like the designers changed their mind about their target audience part way through construction, and in so doing ended up with a bizarre layout that ends up pleasing nobody at all. It's worth noting also that the restraint design is not particularly comfortable for taller people, as it places a lot of weight on the shoulders; though we did a second lap we decided against going back for a third.
The only other significant ride in the park is Sky Screamer, a triple installation of S&S Combo Towers, with upward and downward launches. James and Andrew had never done an upward tower ride before, but both strapped themselves in like veterans. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the towers here were being run at full power, with a substantial pop of airtime at the top. The view from the apex was quite spectacular, and the steam clouds rising from the nearby waterfall were clearly visible. We rode twice, and would probably have gone back for a third round but for the fact that another hundred miles in the car beckoned.