The city of London is home to more than eight million people, and over thirty million more visit each year, many of them during the holiday season. The numbers make the place ideal for large travelling funfairs, and nowhere is this more obvious than at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, where attractions such as the legendary Olympia Looping can handle in excess of four thousand guests per hour (at £9 per ride!) and still command a lengthy queue. In recent years a number of other events have attempted to capture some of this market with very limited success; thus far the only one to survive for more than one season is Winterville, which took place in 2014 and 2015 in Victoria Park. The promoters decided to take a break in 2016, but have reopened this year on a new site in Clapham Common.
It was a little before six in the evening when I arrived at the main entrance to the ground, around five minutes on foot from the nearest underground station. There was a compulsory bag check, a sad inevitability in this day and age, albeit a perfunctory one that left little doubt that it was there to make people feel safe (and confiscate outside food and drink) rather than as a mechanism of stopping a would-be miscreant. The interior area was very well presented, with a solid base on the ground, festive decorations, and a mixture of tents and wood buildings. There was even a faint hint of bratwurst and glühwein in the air. The only thing obviously missing was people; during my exploration it became very apparent that staff outnumbered guests by a factor of at least two to one. The only portion of the site with obvious activity was the ice rink, which had a half dozen people milling about; beyond that, I might as well have been visiting while the place was closed.
I decided to begin my visit with an early dinner, and followed my nose towards a stall with a wide variety of different German sausages cooking on a flame grill. The number being prepared looked more than a little optimistic given the visitor numbers, though fortunately this had no impact on the quality which was easily comparable to what one might obtain at the Rheinkirmes. I decided to walk while eating, and began a slow routing around the ride area to see what might be on offer. The machines present were without exception from UK-based showmen, and there was nothing really exciting in the mix; the only machine to catch my eye was Over The Falls, a KMG Speed owned by George Brett that looked very familiar. It was only later that I realised why; I'd ridden it at Martin's Fantasy Island back in 2014.
The first coaster of the day became Santa's Sleigh Coaster (Bishton) (#2400), a DAL-built Wacky Worm fitted with a seasonal overlay. The replacement sign on the station platform looked reasonable enough, as did the lead car which featured two reindeer with santa hats mounted in place of the regular caterpillar figurehead. The rest of the train however looked faintly ridiculous, as each Apple car was wrapped (badly) with a loose fitting red and white fabric cover decorated with pictures of presents. Little bits of green were clearly visible all over the place, and while the average four year old would likely not notice their parents most certainly would. The contrast against other seasonal overlays could not have been more dramatic. My £3 ticket allowed me to enjoy three laps in the back seat of an otherwise empty train.
My second stop was at Crazy Mouse (Wilmot), a small footprint Reverchon machine that spent its formative years in Ireland under the ownership of Harry McFadden. The ride looked much as it did in times past, with the only obvious differences being a series of flags along the lift hill and a permanently illuminated sign at the apex rather than the more usual animated one. The track was in need of paint, but the ride quality was not affected, being enjoyable and fun if not thrilling. Once again I was the only person riding, and the staff had to dispatch an empty car after my £5 circuit as there were more cars on track than there was space in the station. With that done I began heading towards the exit, though I did decide to stop briefly at Henry Danter's Giant Wheel. My £5 ticket granted me a completely private ride, comprising two slow rotations lasting around a minute apiece. The cars had high sides but were otherwise open, and my arms were just long enough to take unobstructed photographs while seated.
Hyde Park Winter Wonderland
5th December 2017
The primary entrance to Hyde Park Winter Wonderland is located roughly five minutes walk from the Hyde Park Corner underground station. Tonight however it was open only to those with pre-booked tickets for the skating rink and circus. As I had neither the staff pointed me towards a secondary entrance that was clearly visible despite being some distance away as several hundred people queued in front of a security checkpoint. I spent much of the twenty-five minute wait in line listening to pair of teenaged females discussing the recent engagement of Prince Harry to, of all things, an American. The conversation was profoundly boring even by coaster enthusiast standards, and the fact that it was still active when I made my escape indicates that one (or both) may want to consider a future career screenwriting for Peter Jackson movies.
The ground was busy but not excessively so, with short but manageable waits for all rides. I decided to begin my exploration with Wilde Maus XXL, the enormous portable mouse that I've enjoyed many times over the last few years. For this season the owners have decided to add a VR headset option for an extra £2 on top of the standard £7 ticket, and as befits a German fairground ride the retrofit has been done without any meaningful impact on overall throughput. The approach is as simple as it is effective; there is a dedicated queue beside the station for those wishing to experience VR, and four dedicated operators put headsets on riders while another non-VR car is loading right behind. The ruthless efficiency means a VR car can be boarded and dispatched in about fifteen seconds, which is several orders of magnitude better than all other extant VR coasters.
Better yet, the on-board video is a custom production that is far superior to the effective but limited Flying Dragon meets Super Mario 64 imagery found on Alpenexpress and Tibidabo Express. The climb up the lift hill feels like a vertical ascent as riders see a car being winched up a mine shaft. At the apex, the view switches to directly behind an aircraft, which swoops low over some fields and makes sharp turns in perfect synchronisation with the track. The switchbacks in the next portion of the layout are replaced with a bird towing a wooden sled across planks, several of which are dropped in place just as riders pass over them. Finally, the lower level shows a tractor pulling a car around a thoroughly berserk course. The footage works beautifully, to the point that I went back for a second lap later in the day. (As an aside, I think that significant and regular direction changes found on a mouse make for a much better canvas for VR than the average meandering powered coaster; showmen of the world should take note!).
My next stop was at Olympia Looping, the world's greatest travelling coaster and one that I've ridden at eight different events: Dusseldorf (2013), Hamburg (2005, 2012), Leipzig (2009), London (2016), Stuttgart (2008), and Vienna (2016). At all of these locations the ride operated with five car trains, giving a theoretical maximum capacity of around three thousand guests per hour, more than enough for all but the biggest fairs. However, the ride does have seven car trains for really big events, such as Oktoberfest in Munich. They were deployed in Hyde Park just one day after my visit last year, much to my consternation, and I made plans to return the moment it became apparent that the long trains would be present again this year. I'd been looking forward to experiencing a proper back seat ride, and it was certainly good, if anticlimactic; had I been blindfolded I honestly doubt I could have told the difference between cars five and seven. I decided it was worth investing a further £9 for a lap in the front seat that I enjoyed far more.
I met up with fellow enthusiast David for an embarrassing yet highly enjoyable lap on Snowman Coaster (Holland), a powered oval generally known as Mini Caterpillar but redecorated for the winter months. There was no way for an adult to sit in the cars facing forward, but the operator was happy for us to sit sideways and there was ample room for that. Though not something I would ever count the £2 ride was an absolute hoot, not least when a fake snow machine smelling vaguely of Fairy liquid began disgorging its contents on the moving train. Our decision to ride apparently started a trend, as a larger group of adults rode immediately after us, occupying all but one of the eight seats on the train.
There was a new credit for both of us at the back of the ground. Santa's Coaster (Manning) (#2401) looked at first glance like a standard Reverchon/Zamperla spinning mouse, though there were a few subtle differences in the cars, which we later determined to be of Turkish origin. Each had a reindeer bolted to the front that was presumably designed to be swapped with a more subtle figurehead outside of the holiday season. Though visually appealing the ride was decidedly mediocre, with almost no spinning and a brutal mechanical straightening device at the end of the course that was oddly reminiscent of something from Golden Horse. The one saving grace was the £5 ticket price, making it the cheapest adult coaster at the event by some margin.
The final ride of the night was View Tower, a large portable observation tower from the Netherlands with an £8 ticket price. For whatever reason it wasn't possible to buy a ticket at the huge booth in front of the ride; instead, we were directed to a separate token window nearby. Those tokens then had to be exchanged for a bespoke piece of paper before boarding, a bizarrely convoluted system reminiscent of the early years of Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. The view was decent enough, if not ideal for would-be photographers due to brightly coloured lights reflecting off the glass. Each window also had large signs attached indicating that professional photography was not allowed, though one gentleman in the car with us was making the most of a SLR; one suspects that a regulation of this type might be respected a little better if advertised at the ticket window.