Travel Note

5th August 2018

My second expedition to the United States this year was, like the first, made primarily for business. As usual I decided to supplement my work activities with a few days of annual leave in order to enjoy some roller coasters. My only constraint was a requirement to be in Las Vegas by the evening of August 8th; aside from that I was free to do whatever I wanted. After some research I decided on a crowded but achievable itinerary that would bring me to two parks on my bucket list in that "general area", a phase redefined on this occasion to mean "within two hours of flying time". Megan was able to join me for the few days, and supplemented her plan with a surprise visit to her parents in Philadelphia.

My first thought was to start our adventure with a flight to El Paso and Western Playland, but after reviewing opening hours I determined that we could easily slot in a few hours at Cliff's Amusement Park beforehand. As such as we booked a connecting flight from Dublin to Albuquerque via Atlanta. The routing had a five hour layover, which we took advantage of by taking an Uber to a nearby branch of Cracker Barrel. Atlanta Airport has added some fairly respectable food choices over the last years, not least branches of P.F.Chang's and TGI Friday's, but there is nothing quite as filling after a long haul flight as a portion of Saturday Chicken'n'Rice.


Cliff's Amusement Park

5th August 2018

Cliff's Amusement Park was a small park when I first visited it back in 2008, and eleven seasons later that hasn't changed. The land bank covers around nine acres, and one can walk from one side to the other in less than two minutes. Despite its diminuitive size however it packs in almost twenty rides and a small water park, and management has even found space for some token wild west theming and a few trees. Unlimited ride wristbands are available, as are individual ride tickets for those on a limited budget. We decided to go with the former for convenience sake.


We were expecting the park to be busy, given that we were visiting on a weekend in peak season, but we need not have worried; today the queues peaked at around ten minutes for the two larger roller coasters with all other attractions being walk-on. We were able to box off all three credits in half an hour without rushing, and ninety minutes was more than ample to do everything that we wanted to. Our stay was pleasant and enjoyable, with only one minor negative: a number of park shops and restaurants remained closed throughout our visit.

The venerable SDC Galaxi is unequivocally in its sunset years, with just ten of the original thirty-eight still in operation, down from twenty a decade ago. There will come a time, and probably not that long from now, when the genre goes extinct. The first few seconds of our ride on the Galaxi today seemed to go on a long time, as our two-car train slowly creaked its way out of the station towards the base of the lift hill. The climb to the top was similarly sluggish, and the flat turn at the apex was traversed at a slow walking pace. It was only after the first drop that the experience came to life as the descending helices delivered a pleasant if not overly forceful thrill.

New Mexico Rattler has a novel queuing system with dedicated entrances for front row, back row, and all other rows. This is a wonderful idea that I wish more parks would adopt, though the implementation at Cliff's could do with some work. Today we saw more than one group of guests walk blindly into the "all other rows" queue then look around confused when it became apparent that they couldn't reach the front that way. We decided there was no point in waiting for special seats, and thus we wound up in the second car from the back. Half way around the course Megan announced that "they got the Rattler bit anyway", and she wasn't wrong; the comfort level was far from good, with the only enjoyable portions being areas that had obviously been retracked for this season. Our second ride in row three was quite a lot better mind; I'd happily have ridden several times in that location.

Coaster number three was Spin-O-Rama (#2486), a compact spininng coaster with retrofitted seatbelts presumably installed at the behest of some lawyer trying to justify their existence. The ride was equipped with a fairly piercing siren that sounded every time the train approached the station, an unusual addition for a ride with a figure eight layout and a lap time measured in single digits. For us the experience was a tick and no more than that, though we did enjoy listening to a young girl in the car in front of us who was apparently having the time of her life; every few moments she announced to all listening that the ride was "too much fun for me"!

Our only other hit was Wind Rider, a Zamperla-built copy of the Funtime Star Flyer where the tower rather than the swing assembly rotates. This turned out to be my favourite ride in the park, both because of the view and because it was a few degrees cooler at the heights.



Western Playland

5th August 2018

Over the last seventeen years I have made numerous trips to the United States, calling in at all but one of the amusement parks with three or more roller coasters. The only significant omission from the list was Western Playland, a small family-run facility on the southern border of the country whose limited operating hours and somewhat challenging location conspired to keep it out of my itineraries. Fitting it into a trip this year added something of the order of twelve hours driving over my "plan B" routing, which wasn't the smartest thing I've done over the years, though it was at least a little less ridiculous than what I did this week in 2017.

The original Western Playland was founded in 1960 by members of the Thomson family, who set it up on a fifteen acre site in Ascerate Park in El Paso, Texas. At the turn of the millennium the owners began negotiating for an expanded site with the El Paso County Commissioners Court, but it wasn't possible to reach an agreement, and in 2006 the existing rides were moved en masse to a new site seventeen miles away in New Mexico. The relocation was not without its problems but in the end appears to have been for the best, as the park continues to go from strength to strength.

The park is laid out in a circle. At its centre is three and a half acres of semi-desert landscape that the map designates as future expansion, though it's worth noting all attractions acquired over the last decade have been installed on to the existing midway. Just about all of the purchases have been decades old, making the place feel like a relic from a simpler time. In keeping with this general theme the atmosphere is laid back and relaxed, and the staff are genuinely friendly. The contrast from larger corporate parks could not have been more pronounced.

Our visit began with Miner Coaster (#2487), a twenty foot high design from E&F Miler Industries that has much in common with the smaller models found in Cedar Fair parks. We were expecting to have to ride separately for weight reasons but the operator wasn't bothered when we sat together. Moments later we were sent around for three boisterous laps puntuated by small quantities of airtime. We followed this up with Spinning Coaster (#2488), the same basic design as at Cliff's but without the seatbelts and siren. This version managed quite a bit of spinning, to the point that I felt vaguely dizzy when our ride came to an end.

Spinning Coaster

The highlight of the coaster collection is El Bandido (#2489), one of just six remaining examples of the Pinfari Z64. There was no queue during our visit, though we did overhear an operator mentioning that it had been extremely busy a few nights before with a line stretching half way around the park. The layout owes much to the SDC Galaxi, though the ride dimensions are somewhat larger resulting in a higher top speed. At the end of the course we were brought to a smooth stop by retrofitted magnetic brakes, an unexpected upgrade presumably aimed to keep a seventies-era coaster going for a few more years. We rode twice, once in the front and once in the back.

In 2013 the park acquired the Hurricane from Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, thereby giving new life to a coaster that was known throughout the enthusiast community for its superlative second drop (and, it should be said, not a lot else). As we took our seats an operator apologetically informed us that he needed eight people to dispatch but that we were welcome to wait for a few minutes if we wanted to. In due course we were sent on our merry way for an experience that would have been truly hideous were it not for the lap bar restraints; though the ride delivered strong lateral forces these were accompanied by a whole series of sharp knocks that left me questioning whether the wheels were actually round. We did a second lap out of courtesy before moving on.

Our next stop was Sky Glider, a chairlift that runs along the eastern edge of the park. The ride has only one station, located adjacent to the Tsunami giant splash; cars reverse direction at the far end of the park next to the children's area. As ever the key draw of the attraction for us was the photo opportunities, and there were some good ones particularly of El Bandido and Miner Coaster. We also enjoyed a lap on the Train, though pictures from there were in short supply.