In the planning stages of this trip it became apparent that we'd be driving past a major Six Flags park on Independence Day. The sensible thing to do on paper would have been to skip the place entirely, given that the new credit on our hit list would (probably) still be around on our next visit to the area. Nevertheless we decided that we'd use our pre-purchased season passes to do a hit and run on the grounds that we could do so at no cost, and when the expected crowds failed to materialise we changed itinerary on the fly and stayed for several hours.
We didn't quite manage to get to the park in time for opening despite best intentions, a not altogether surprising after-effect of a five hour time zone jump, but we were only a few minutes behind the multitudes as we drove into the car park shortly after half past ten. My parking pass was scanned by an effervescent and ebullient employee who told us to "have a wonderful day and a very happy fourth" with remarkable sincerity given that he'd probably repeated the same catchphrase at least a hundred times in the previous hour.
Security screening was handled efficiently, and once through we found about fifteen different entrance gates that were labelled with a variety of choices, including "day tickets", "processed season passes", "season pass vouchers", and "early entry". Megan had yet to process her pass and joined the slow-moving voucher line, though she was one of the few to actually do that up front. While waiting I saw several groups attempting to use the faster lines for pass processing only to find out the hard way that they couldn't. It was hard not to feel a sense of schadenfreude as one set decided to create a scene after learning that they'd been standing in the wrong place for fifteen minutes.
Once through, we walked directly back to the Joker (#2253) to determine the lay of the land. I'd seen a test car dispatch earlier in the day, but that was all, indicating that something wasn't quite right. It wasn't much of a surprise to discover a closed ride, though the staff member at the entrance was able to tell me that they expected to open in about twenty minutes. With that knowledge in hand we joined the fourth queue of the morning to rent a locker.
It is perhaps instructive at this point to describe the usual steps required to arrange lockers at theme parks. The vast majority of those in American parks seem to come from the GoPod family, and rental requires three steps: payment by cash or card, entry of a user-selected pin, and a repeat of the same pin for safety. A promotional video from the manufacturer shows the process taking approximately twenty seconds to complete from start to end, and indeed that is roughly what it took us to do. However, we were in the minority; the four groups in front of us in line took an incredible fifteen minutes between them, and one even had to seek assistance from a member of staff, making it fairly obvious that the wheel was turning but the hamster was dead (and quite possibly decomposed).
The designated queuing area was kept closed throughout the testing process, resulting in a substantial unofficial line stretching back along the side of Switlik Lake at the back of the park. Once the ride opened however it moved quickly, and we managed to claim a spot just a few feet beyond the posted thirty minutes from this point marker. I'd expected to have to wait far longer for an almost new ride on a holiday, and it's worth calling out that the estimate seemed on the high side; before we knew it we were next in line to board on the lake side of the track.
The new ride is a compact coaster with vertically stacked track sections negotiated by eight-seat cars that rotate around the vertical axis. That description sounds familiar because it isn't a new idea; rather, S&S Sansei have come up with their own version of the Intamin ZacSpin, a type that I've found distinctly variable over the years; the first two installations were great, but I couldn't say the same for the larger models, both of which were memorable mainly for the series of punches they delivered to my stomach. I was quite nervous when boarding, but I'm glad to report that my concern was misplaced; there were no comfort issues on the ride today.
Our car was dispatched very efficiently by Six Flags standards, with the time from gate opening to wheels rolling taking less than thirty seconds. The lift hill was fairly quick, and at the apex our car began to rock back and forth, delivering a variety of unusual forces. The experience, though novel, was somewhat tamer than I'd expected, as our car only flipped over once as we coasted over the "big" drop, a fifty-four foot descent and climb out located roughly two thirds of the way through the course. Reports online indicate that the intensity of this ride design is adjustable on demand, and I found myself wondering whether park management had deliberately chosen a gentle programme instead of the extreme experience that the hardware could theoretically provide.
Joker meets all the rules to be classified as a roller coaster, but it honestly feels like it should be thought of as a flat ride. The layout has no sensation of speed, no sensation of being high off the ground, and no airtime; instead, riders are treated to a rocking sensation of the type more traditionally associated with products from the Huss Park Attractions stable, albeit without the lateral motion and with a modicum of unpredictability. Readers who enjoy spin and spews will love the experience, but those who tend to favour coasters will probably consider it a tick that, once completed, is not something worth waiting for a second time.
We retrieved our various accoutrements from the incredibly complicated lockers and relocated to Nitro, which had been adorned today with a series of banners celebrating fifteen years of operation. There were three trains in use and as a result we were able to walk directly on to the back row. The track looked decidedly shabby today and badly in need of a fresh coat of paint, but the ride experience hadn't changed all that much barring a small amount of vibration, as I noted in my 2010 report. Though mildly unpleasant it wasn't severe enough to impact the enjoyment of what remains one of the most family friendly hypercoasters in North America.
Bizarro was also badly in need of fresh paint, with rust everywhere and flecks of the original colour scheme clearly visible in places. It was great to see two trains in use despite no queue whatsoever, but we became somewhat less impressed when it became apparent that the loading speed was best measured using an hourglass. We decided to eschew the front seat as we didn't feel like waiting twenty minutes for two trains to go through, and instead selected row six, from where the seven inversions were negotiated effortlessly. I could have done without the blast of heat from the fire effect, but that was a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.
It was an unexpected treat to find both sides of the Swiss-built Skyway running at the same time, something that hasn't happened on any of my previous six visits to the park. We decided to take full advantage of this for photographs, riding the external section of each track in order to get all possible angles. The only worthwhile shot on the lake side was of the new coaster; for everything else the opposite side was best.
The final coaster of the morning became El Toro, and I'm sorry to report that it wasn't running well at all. The lift and first drop were as good as they've ever been, and the following airtime hill (complete with triumphant Intamin fart noise!) was great. However, the turnaround was absolutely dreadful, with the train jackhammering badly enough to induce a severe headache. The rest of the layout became an unpleasant endurance test, and I wasn't at all sorry when the train hit the final brakes. Given the condition of the track it was quite a surprise to see one of the trains wrapped with Kia Soul branding; I'd have thought that a car company would prefer not to associate itself with a vehicle doing its best to hurt customers.