The media launch for Cú Chulainn Coaster (#2136) took place on Thursday June 4th. I've decided to replace my usual trip report with a reflection on the development of Ireland's first proper roller coaster.
This story begins on a cold January evening when I was sitting with Megan in the back row of a circus performance at Christmas Wonderland, a travelling funfair in Dublin that was four weeks into its five week run. The two of us were among a group of supervisors looking after almost thirty teenaged choristers who had been brought to the fair as a reward for a successful Christmas concert that had taken place a few weeks before. My mind was a thousand miles away when my phone buzzed with a text message from my father linking to a newspaper article.
I tapped on the link absentmindedly, and saw a thoroughly unexpected headline materialize on the small screen; Tayto Park could get Europe's 2nd biggest roller coaster in 2015. My immediate reaction was one of scepticism; I'd heard about Tayto Park, but knew of it only as a children's playground and zoo. The idea that somewhere like this could soon be home to a major roller coaster seemed about as likely as the Pope renouncing Catholicism. At the same time, however, it was impossible to ignore the history of the Tayto brand, and in particular the tenacity of its owner, the businessman Ray Coyle. Any project with his name on it, no matter how improbable, presumably had to be grounded in a certain amount of fact.
The history of roller coasters in Ireland up until this point was somewhat patchy, with the handful of permanent installations all geared at young children. A previous newspaper story about a spinning coaster proposed for Funtasia came to nothing, and a travelling Schwarzkopf Looping Star was sold on after three seasons because it wasn't covering its costs. Even the population of smaller portable coasters had dwindled over the preceding decade, with two of the three spinning mice and the Pinfari looper finding new homes overseas.
The newspaper story had announced wood track, a maximum height of thirty-two metres and a total cost of €8.5 million, but no information about a manufacturer. An online trawl through the Meath Local Authority planning system revealed nothing at all, so to find out more, I sent out some messages to my contacts in the local media. About a week later, one of them was able to tell me that The Gravity Group was involved.
It wasn't until the middle of March when my regular searches through the planning lists bore fruit. The imaginatively named Ashbourne Visitor Centre Ltd had applied for permission to build an access road, a car park, an admissions building, a toilet block (an ever-present help in time of need), an indoor dark ride, an Air Race, and a wooden roller coaster with a ride length of 1,081 metres. I devoted two full evenings to reading through almost three hundred pages of bureaucracy that managed to say almost nothing of consequence. The documentation did, however, include artists impressions of the proposed ride and three dimensional drawings best described as geek porn.
The sheer volume of paperwork and the obvious expense behind it blew away what remained of my disbelief. It was clear that this was a real project, and one which was very likely to proceed. A local nursing home filed an objection to the proposed development in mid-April, noting acidly that it would provide "an aggressive intrusion" into the lives of their seventy-four residents, but after some back and forth the planning authorities decided to grant permission, albeit with certain restrictions. The decision became final in July.
We travelled to the park for the first time in November, both to get a feel for the place and to find out first-hand whether the building process had begun. Our trip was rewarded with the sight of several acres of cleared land, an enormous stack of timber, and the unmistakable sight of coaster footers visible through a gap in the fence. Later that month Justin Garvanovic from the European Coaster Club met with representatives from the park at IAAPA, and through this contact I was able to set up a series of visits to the park in the off season to document the construction process in full.
Our first site tour took place during the second week of December, just after the initial bents had been installed at the base of the first drop. An enormous bin full of bolts stood nearby, giving the general impression of an enormous wooden Meccano set. A lap around the outside of the site revealed that this ride was going to be truly enormous. We were given free reign to take all the photographs we wanted, with the only proviso being that we were asked not to publish them until after the official media launch in order to maximise press coverage.
Bents were rising in four different locations by the time of our second visit in mid-January, a bitterly cold Monday morning where the mercury hit just two degrees towards the end of our drive back home. The early hour of our visit allowed for some superb shots of the sun rising through the track structure, followed a few minutes later by the morning light reflecting across the fresh new wood.
The publicity campaign began in earnest at the start of February, and with it came the lifting of the embargo on sharing pictures. I published a series of two dozen shots on ThemeParks.ie that used almost a quarter of my monthly bandwidth allocation in the space of twelve hours. The interest was intense, and not just from the enthusiast community; within days I was asked to participate in a radio interview with broadcaster Ryan Tubridy trying to understand what all the fuss was about.
We were quite early for our third construction tour in early March, and decided to pass the time by driving around the local area to see what progress might be visible from the road. We were rewarded with the sight of most of a lift hill and a clear view of the enormous first drop. Most of the rest of the structure was in place by the end of that month, and by the first week of May track installation was well underway. Despite the obvious progress, however, it seemed unlikely that the ride would be ready for the summer; the structure for the over-banked turn had yet to be assembled and the trains had yet to arrive on site. Our cynicism proved misplaced, though; just two weeks later an email came in with an invitation to attend the media launch, which had been set for June 4th.
Despite the short notice some twenty-five members of the European Coaster Club were able to attend, flying in for the day from five countries. We had some minor issues with the bus chartered to take us from Dublin Airport, but nevertheless managed to arrive on site just as the ribbon was being cut for the official opening. We had a bird's eye view of the first train moving up the newly decorated lift hill, adorned with a collection of GAA county flags.
The entrance to the Cú Chulainn Coaster can be found under a sculptured stone archway with our protagonist on top, a hound on one side, and Aoife (the mother of his child) on the other. One of the staff members on duty today told me that the structure had been installed just hours earlier, and indeed workers were finishing the rear section even as we walked underneath. Its appearance reminded me very much of Tonnerre de Zeus, albeit without the somewhat mischievous polka-dot underwear (for now at least).
A poster board with the usual safety rules ("no selfie sticks!") marks the start of the cattle grid, which is surrounded by ride structure on all four sides. The pathway faces the lift hill, but also runs parallel to a powerful airtime hill. The unmistakable sound of a wood coaster train mingled with excited screams is at its loudest at this point, the perceived sound level amplified by echoes bouncing in all directions.
A short set of stairs leads up to the station, an open-sided wooden structure that has not been themed. The entrance side has the expected series of air gates, albeit without extended areas for front and back rows, and the exit side has a small storage area and an understated manufacturer's plate. The most interesting fact on it is the environmental restrictions, which list the ride as being operable whenever the temperature is above freezing, which should allow use throughout the park operating season from March to December.
The layout begins with a tight left turn beside a curiously positioned No Parking sign, followed by a twenty-five second climb to the top of the lift hill. The view from the apex shows half the ride but also a spectacular backdrop of green fields and trees, punctuated only by a handful of isolated houses. The perfectly straight drop is four seconds of weightless bliss, followed in short order by a fantastic airtime hill enclosed within a short tunnel, a climb-out, and a wide turnaround. Another drop and climbing turn lead to the highlight of the ride, an airtime filled twisted double drop with two head-chopper effects leading to an over-banked turn.
There has been quite a bit of discussion within the enthusiast community surrounding the park's decision to market this element as an inversion, stretching the usual definition of the word to breaking point. The mainstream media dutifully ran a number of articles about Europe's first Inverted Wood Coaster oblivious to the fact that the normal definition of Inverted Coaster is one in which the train runs under the track. This hyperbolic malapropism was hardly without precedent, notably the Six Flags chain choosing to describe their uninspired flat ride as a roller coaster, but it was a little disappointing nevertheless.
Be that as it may, there is no question that the whatever-you-want-to-call-it provides a unique thrill that is not available on any other wood coaster in Europe. Riders in the front are through almost before they realise what is happening, giving an intense rush. Riders in the back have a clear view of the entire train twisting in front of them, passengers' heads tilting over towards the inspection walkway underneath. The effect works very well, and doesn't feel like a gimmick built to take a record, making it a definite step up from some other recent rides.
The rest of the layout is made up of a wonderful collection of double-ups, double-downs, and twisted turns, culminating in a second enclosed tunnel at the very end. There are no dead spots anywhere, and no mid-course block, meaning that the overall pacing and relentless sense of speed is maintained all the way to the final brake run, reached just over ninety seconds after the train has left the station.
The twelve car Timberliner trains handle the track well and are very comfortable. The individual cars are somewhat utilitarian in appearance, thanks to large numbers of individual bolts, but this is compensated for by an elaborately sculptured figurehead on the front configured with a facial expression that could be considered heroic or constipated (or possibly both).
There's no question at all that Cú Chulainn is a top ten wooden coaster, well up there with the very best in the world. I told several sets of journalists as much, using a truly diabolical pun ("they nailed it!") to hammer my point home. The surrounding area would benefit from some landscaping work, but that constitues an absolutely tiny nit-pick and in any case is something that will likely come in time. Megan summarised things perfectly in an interview broadcast on national television; Tayto Park has put Ireland on the theme park map at long last, and it has been well worth the wait.