Our morning began with a brutally early alarm made all the worse by the fact that we'd only arrived at our overnight hotel four hours earlier due to our stop at Stricker's Grove. The blaring siren triggered a spontaneous review of recent life choices, but the prospect of a backstage tour at America's Roller Coast was just about enough motivation for us to reluctantly accept that it was time to get out of bed. We drove the ten minutes to the park along a completely deserted causeway and, after some negotiation, parked our car in the preferred area.
Cedar Point introduced its Sunrise Thrills VIP Tour this year, clearly inspired by a similar product on offer at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Both tours offer behind-the-scenes access to various rides, as well as the chance to walk around on the top of a B&M dive coaster. It is perhaps easiest to summarise the differences between the two tours in table form:
|Busch Gardens||Cedar Point|
|Tour Length:||4 hours||4 hours|
|Tour Rides:||Two Alpengeist
Two Apollo's Chariot
Two Loch Ness Monster
|Fast-Lane Rides:||One Alpengeist
One Apollo's Chariot
One Loch Ness Monster
|One plus ride (Gatekeeper, Top Thrill Dragster, Maverick, or Valravn)
One standard ride (everything else)
|Photography:||CD of tour photos||All-Day Funpix Card|
The Cedar Point tour is by far the best choice for photographers. To be blunt, there's really not a lot to see from the top of Griffon, whereas Valravn has a spectacular skyline. However, those who don't do photographs will likely be bored after returning to ground level. In comparison, the Busch tour includes lots of interesting technical information that I didn't know despite being an enthusiast for almost twenty years. That makes it a great choice for nerds, though those who are less obsessive may find themselves tuning out. On value however Busch wins hands down; fifteen coaster rides for $80 vs four for $199 is a pretty dramatic difference, and I honestly felt that the Cedar Point limit of four rides was extremely stingy for a tour likely to attract enthusiasts.
The tour began with a walk back to Valravn for our trip to the top. We were given safety harnesses to wear, a distinct difference from the Busch tour, but the reason for them quickly became apparent as we stepped out of the maintenance car at the top. It was extremely windy up there, as befits a park next to a lake, and it would not be pretty at all if someone were to miss their footing. Our guide told us that the wind speed was pretty close to the maximum limit for the tour, which was a major relief; given how much we'd paid I'd have been positively livid if we'd missed out on seeing the aerial view for ourselves.
Once back at ground level we were brought into the room underneath the ride station, a fairly sparse area with wood-lined walls and a collection of water dummies resting in one corner. There was a spiral staircase at one end that we were invited to climb in small groups, and that gave us a close-up look at an electrical switching box underneath the station. We then moved on to another room with a table containing five parts from the ride: two wheels, an anti-rollback dog, part of a restraint, and an enormous wrench. Those who wanted to could have their photos taken holding the sixty pound wheel, and many did. We were also given a look at the maintenance bay, and the main thing I remember from there was the sheer number of dead bugs that had been collected by the ride wheel covers. The area around Lake Erie is well known for chironomidae, but the depth of the infestation on such a new ride was impressive (and slightly disgusting) nevertheless.
We were brought from there to the employee cafeteria for our breakfast. The serving staff were apparently unaware that participants in the morning tour were entitled to eat there, but the confusion was quickly sorted out by our guide. I'd been expecting a stack of donuts at best, but there was actually quite a range of choices in portion sizes best described as American. The incredibly low prices on the menu board were apparently not subsidised, which set me wondering just how much profit the average amusement park makes from its catering.
Following the meal we were brought back to Valravn for what was supposed to be the first ride of the day, but morning tests were still underway and after about twenty minutes of waiting around our guide decided we'd come back later. Instead we were brought out into the grass field underneath the ride's two vertical drops for some unique photo opportunities. The most interesting shot I took was looking up the two hundred feet of spiral staircase next to the first drop, installed as an emergency backup in the event that the maintenance car should fail.
Our next stop was at Top Thrill Dragster, where we were brought into the area at the base of the tower. Sadly there was no opportunity to view the ride launch system, which felt like a major omission from a tour of this type, but we did get to stand right next to the track as trains raced up and down around us. Our guide explained that this room (and the elevator to the top of the tower) were not available for tours because the start-up procedures for the ride in the morning took too long to complete. That felt like a bit of a cop out to me, though, given that Alton Towers allowed members of the European Coaster Club to see their hydraulic launch motor in operation, albeit from behind a thick plexiglass window.
The tour continued with a walk across Dinosaurs Alive into a boneyard area, where we saw a few random artefacts including a lead car from Mantis, the gutted remains of a boat from the late Shoot the Rapids, and one of the cars from Wildcat. The latter had a thick plank of wood and a can of Coke occupying a seat that held hundreds of thousands of guests over a thirty-two year career. We also got a close-up view of all that was left of Paddlewheel Excursions, a boat ride retired from the park on Labor Day in 2011.
The highlight in terms of photo opportunities came at Millennium Force. We were initially brought underneath the ride station, from where we could see clearly how the catch car mechanism engaged with the train. We then moved underneath the lift itself, where we had a clear view of the unusually prominent yellow wheels that make up the cable lift system. There were several good shots to be had from this location, such as the entry and exit of the tunnels and the impressive support structure holding up the first drop. Megan was in her element, shooting over thirty pictures during this portion of the tour alone.
We were then taken down a path behind Maverick, though it's worth noting that the only photo available from here that couldn't have been taken from public areas was that of the second launch, which was difficult to capture due to the trains emerging from darkness at speed. I asked the guide if she could tell me anything about the reasoning behind the last minute removal of the ride's third inversion in early 2007, but she didn't actually know that that had happened, it being well before her time. When everyone had their shots we were escorted into the station for an immediate ride. Megan and I ended up in the back row, which I fully expected to be horrid, given prior bad experiences. However, as we sat down it became apparent that the original restraints had been swapped out in favour of soft black straps akin to those at Kings Dominion, implying that today would be different.
Sure enough, the comfort level for our lap was in a completely different league to what it had been a few years ago, so much so that my immediate reaction was to wonder aloud whether the park had secretly scrapped the original ride hardware in favour of a new installation. The aggressive transitions that had caused yelps of pain on previous trips were all of a sudden brilliant, delivering an intense thrill without bruising. The park is to be commended for investing in this upgrade, though it does make one wonder why Intamin didn't put in the time to develop softer restraints in the first place.
The tour ended with a ride on Valravn (#2271), the new-for-2016 B&M Dive Machine, where we were assigned to seats in the middle of the front row. It was interesting to see twenty-four passenger trains laid out in three rows of eight, a vehicle size not seen since SheiKra premiered way back in 2005. The decision to eschew the larger thirty passenger trains seen on Dive Coaster and Griffon seemed a little bizarre given the huge capacity requirements at Cedar Point, though on the plus side management did at least avoid the miniaturised rolling stock found on the last three installations.
The first half of the layout is respectable but pure vanilla for anyone who has been on a coaster of this style previously, with a holding brake, a vertical drop, and an Immelmann inversion that feels no different to other rides in the same family despite being somewhat larger. The second half starts off with another vertical drop and undistinguished inversion that leads to the highlight: an incredible zero gravity roll that I'd argue is the single finest moment of any coaster I've ridden in the last five years. Megan described the sensation as feeling "like a kite gliding through the air, turning in the breeze" and that's as good an analogy as any; the roll takes around four seconds to complete and throughout that time riders feel completely weightless.
My overall impression of the ride was that it was well up there (pun intended) with the best coasters at the park. That being said, the only top ten moment was the amazing inversion; beyond that the experience was pretty much standard fare. It's also worth calling out that the restraints had a tendency to tighten while out on course, a common issue with the newer B&M designs, and it was necessary to ride defensively in order to maximise comfort. On both of our rides we found ourselves completely pinned into our seats for the final airtime hill, which probably wasn't what the designers intended.
We bid adieu to our group and proceeded to Wicked Twister, which was for a long time my favourite ride in the park. In 2013 I wrote that it was now too shaky to repeat more than once, and sadly that is still the case. Though our front seat was a lot of fun it left me feeling more than a little unsettled. Comfort issues aside, however, I suspect that there would be more impulse coasters around if they were a bit cheaper to operate; there hasn't been a new installation anywhere in the world since Steel Venom was introduced in 2003.
We'd intended to use our token Fast Lane Plus to ride Top Thrill Dragster, but we elected to join the regular queue instead when it became apparent that the posted wait time was just twenty minutes. There was a definite case of herd mentality going on as we reached the station and discovered four train waits for all rows except the back, which was empty. We decided it'd be rude not to take that row, and moments later it became apparent we'd started a trend as people piled in behind us. The ride was excellent, as it always is, aided considerably by the lap bar restraints. (On a side note, we learned that the track had been painted over the winter months at an astonishing cost of one million dollars, perhaps explaining why some parks allow their coasters to look shabby!).
The ride formerly known as Mantis was converted from stand-up trains to floorless trains for the 2015 season, gaining a new name in the process. The reconstituted Rougarou has unusually tall trains, presumably to keep the center of gravity in a similar location to where it was in times past, and as a result there is a small step in the station so riders can climb aboard. The ride comfort was considerably improved over the original rolling stock, though there was still quite a bit of headbanging in the second half of the layout that probably explains why there was no queue today. The conversion almost certainly cost a lot of money, as three new trains would not have been cheap, and given that, it'll be very interesting to see whether other stand-up coasters are similarly modified in the future.
We were one day too early to participate in the announced test of virtual reality on Iron Dragon, but this was actually a positive as it enabled us to board in row four after waiting for less than five minutes, in sharp contrast to the over two hours I had to wait for the equivalent in California. My overall impression of the ride today was the same as in 2010; the first half of the ride was dull, and we hit the final brakes just as things started to get going. I found myself wondering how much longer this ride will remain in the park given that quite a few versions have gone to the scrap heap in recent years; only time will tell.
There was no need for a Fast Lane on Millennium Force as the standby queue didn't start until some distance after the merge point. Given the short wait we decided that we might as well delay a couple of cycles for the back seat, and from that location the first drop was simply magnificent. The rest of the ride was just as smooth as it was on my first ride way back in 2001, and while I'd have preferred the layout to do more there's no question that the ride remains a perennial favourite, having won an industry "best coaster" award over ten times.
We finally managed to use our Fast Lane with a back seat ride on Raptor, saving somewhere in the region of thirty minutes. Today the train went right through the block brake section without slowing down, resulting in an intense finish that made a superb end to our morning.