My first visit to Russia was a five day expedition in July 2013 with four other intrepid enthusiasts. Our tightly-packed itinerary featured thirteen different amusement parks and a number of mainstream tourist attractions such as the Kremlin, Saint Basil's Cathedral, and the State Hermitage Museum. The trip was not without its challenges; one park was unexpectedly closed, a planning error left us with almost no time at Wonder Island, and my then partner was laid low for an afternoon and evening by a severe migraine. Nevertheless the experience was enough to whet my appetite for a return visit.
There were three key priorities for me with this year's adventure. The first was Sochi Park, an international standard resort constructed in 2014 as part of a major drive to boost Russian tourism. The second was Maviland, home to a Togo-built looping coaster originally built for the Metalworkers Palace in Tula. The third was the tricky one: I wanted to visit as many Pax Company coasters as possible. The thirteen Russian locations in RCDB were spread from Kaliningrad in the west through to Konsomolsk-on-Amur in the east, some seven thousand kilometres apart, and getting to them all in one trip was a bridge too far even for me. Nevertheless after countless hours of painstaking research and about two dozen draft routings I settled on a tightly packed itinerary that called in to nine.
The final plan had three rental cars, four domestic flights, thirteen hotels, sixty parks, and nearly five thousand kilometres of driving. It had late nights and early mornings. It wasn't sensible, and it wasn't relaxing. I could have done with a few days holiday to recover when it ended. Furthermore, a large percentage of the coasters were forgettable; almost a third of the new ticks were Wacky Worms, and only a handful of rides were larger than a Galaxi. Despite everything, however, the trip was one of the most enjoyable I've made in recent years, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. The people were friendly, the food was great, and the scenery was spectacular. The standard of driving, outside of the cities at least, was far better than I'd been led to believe. Enthusiasts after a different sort of theme park adventure could do a great deal worse.
Getting a Visa
17th August 2019
Most nationalities require a visa in order to visit Russia. The powers that be are expected to offer electronic visas by 2021, but until that happens it will be necessary to apply in person at a local embassy. The rules for each country are different; as of this writing visitors from Ireland are required to supply a letter of invitation and a tourist confirmation which can be bought online from various providers, while those from the United Kingdom are also required to supply fingerprints. Passports cannot be damaged in any way, and this requirement is rigidly enforced; I ended up having to renew mine a few months early as there was a small tear on one page where a landing card had been stapled in the distant past.
Once in country your visa needs to be registered with the local police, and this needs to be repeated in each city you stay in. This is less onerous than it sounds; your hotel should do it for you during check-in. Though the procedure is only officially required seven days after arrival, readers should be aware that some hotels will not allow check in without a registration receipt (pictured above) even before the grace period has elapsed. You may also need one to leave the country at the end of your stay. To that end, those planning a road trip are advised to obtain the formal paperwork at each and every opportunity.
17th August 2019
My trip began with an Air Baltic flight via Riga that landed into Saint Petersburg shortly before 9:00pm. Those with less than fond memories of the original terminals at Pulkovo Airport (LED) will be relieved to know that both were retired at the end of March 2014 in favour of a modern replacement designed by Grimshaw Architects. Arrivals and ground transportation can be found on the lower level of the new building, along with an Irish pub (they're everywhere!) and a Beeline mobile phone shop. The latter sold me a 20GB data-only SIM card for ₽900 (~€12.29), and this worked very well even if the coverage was somewhat patchy outside urban areas. Purchasing required me to show my passport and sign a number of different forms, though a friendly member of staff helped me through the process.
For the first two nights of our trip we stayed in the Park Inn by Radisson Pulkovo Airport, which is connected to the terminal by a footbridge at mezzanine level. There is an escalator up to this floor from arrivals, though readers should be aware that it is a one way trip; those seeking to return to ground will need to either continue up another level to departures (and clear a security check) or queue for a lift that can hold a maximum of eight people at a time. The lack of stairs in the design seems more than a little strange, though one presumes that the architects had their reasons.
Vostok Amusement Park
17th August 2019
Our morning began with a cab from the airport to Vostok Amusement Park, a collection of family rides located in the car park of the London Mall. The standard Uber app is not currently functional in Russia, but there is a local equivalent called Gett that works the same way, and an English version is available. The journey was particularly good value by western standards; the twenty-seven kilometre run cost us just ₽802.50 (~€10.96) including a ₽150 (~€2.05) premium for airport pick-up. Our driver spoke no English at all, but that was no problem as the app handled the transaction for us. Those who would prefer to use public transport can take the Metro to Prospekt Bolshevikov (Проспект Большевиков), which is about twenty minutes away on foot.
We arrived at our target a few minutes ahead of the advertised 11:00am opening, and it was immediately obvious that the ride area was deserted. Hanging around would have risked awkward questions made even challenging by a language barrier, and with that in mind we headed into the mall to kill some time. The unmistakable sounds of air hockey could be heard coming from somewhere near the roof, and we made our way up a few levels to investigate. The top floor had a multi-screen cinema and other entertainment facilities, though sadly it was entirely devoid of attraksiony.
By the time we returned to the great outdoors some ten minutes later there was a test train cycling on the coaster. We took a few overview photographs from a distance then headed to the Kassa where we acquired two ₽170 (~€2.32) tickets for Caterpillar (#2746), a locally-built Wacky Worm with spring-loaded seatbelts in place of the usual lap bars. The slowest lift hill in the known universe took almost thirty seconds to haul the six car train to the apex, and the turnaround that followed was negotiated at no more than half a mile per hour, but aside from the low speed the experience was exactly as expected. We were given three laps.
17th August 2019
We'd planned to get to our next stop by taking the Metro to Lomonosovskaya (Ломоносовская), but decided to change plans on the fly due to the low cost of using a cab. The fifteen minute journey cost just ₽185.10 (~€2.56), and had the additional virtue of putting us almost an hour ahead of schedule. (The dramatic time saving was only possible because we were moving from one suburb to another on a Saturday morning; those travelling on weekdays and/or those visiting the centre of Saint Petersburg will likely find the Metro to be the fastest way of getting around).
Babushkin Park, officially the Park of Culture and Rest named after I. V. Babushkin, dates back to the closing years of the nineteenth century. In its early years it was operated by the Nevsky Society for the Organization of Public Festivals, an organisation created to provide the working population with "moral, sober and cheap entertainment". Since Soviet times it has been managed and maintained by the local authorities. Today it occupies fourteen hectares, with roughly a fifth of the space devoted to an eclectic collection of amusement rides. Some of the more unusual attractions include:
Avalanche (лавица), a six passenger Miami that looks like it might have been hand-built. The picture on the park web site shows a generic cartoon theme, though today the backflash featured the lead protagonists from Monsters Inc as well as the top portion of Cinderella Castle.
Chamomile (ромашка), a lifting Paratrooper propelled by a pair of fans mounted on opposite sides of the central wheel. The drive system is quite noisy; when running at full speed it can be heard from some distance away.
Cosmos (космос), a circular swing ride mounted on a lifting base allowing it to rise roughly ten metres above the boarding platform. If the idea for the StarFlyer had been developed in the seventies it would look like this.
The park's signature attraction is Russian Coaster (#2747), a unique family ride that was almost certainly second hand when it premiered at the start of 2018. The track has a footprint of 40x20m, making it broadly equivalent in scale to the Pinfari Z40, though it isn't as tall; I'd estimate the maximum height to be roughly double that of a Wacky Worm. At the apex a turnaround with some decidedly questionable track geometry leads to a full height drop and a banked right turn which, while not awful, is negotiated in a manner unlikely to encourage repeat customers. This moment, bruises and all, was the only thrilling portion of what was fundamentally a lacklustre experience; the remainder of the layout, comprising two airtime-free hills and associated turnarounds, was eminently flaccid.
Today guests were being given three laps of the course for their ₽200 (~€2.77) ticket. Something at the back of the train was getting stuck in the station at the end of each lap, though this was apparently expected; the operator had a big stick which he used to poke at the offending equipment. The haphazard nature of the installation was very noticeable at other points in the layout, too; the chain engagement was violent, and the disengagement was scarcely better – both moments made worse by unpadded seats. There have been suggestions within the enthusiast community that the ride might have been an early design from Pax, based on the fact that the lead car has a three-headed horse figurehead; if true then it definitely lacks the refinement of their later efforts.
Our other hit was Caterpillar Grisha (#2748), a standard worm that I'd argue to be the better of the park's coasters. Our three lap cycle took far longer than it should have due to another very slow lift hill, but the ride otherwise was well worth the ₽130 (~€1.80) price tag.
Attraktsiony Dlya Detey
17th August 2019
Attractions For Children (Аттракционы для Детей) is the collective name for a small roller coaster, trampolines, and a few inflatable slides at the entrance of the Park of the 300th Anniversary of Saint Petersburg in the northwestern part of the city. The most efficient way to get there is to take the Metro to Begovaya (Беговая), a relatively new station that opened as part of an extension to line three on 26th May 2018. The rides are roughly ten minutes walk from the train platform.
Dragon (#2749) is an oval-shaped coaster from Fun Rides Tech that was built to travel, though it has been set up at its current location for at least six years. Propulsion is provided by a pair of tyre drive motors in the station that give the twenty passenger train just enough of a kick to complete the circuit using momentum alone. Today the ride cycle consisted of half a lap in reverse, followed by at least twenty laps going forward. The experience was fine, though it could have done with being maybe twenty percent faster. Tickets were ₽200 (~€2.77), and our train was almost completely full despite the above average price. It'd be interesting to know just how profitable the ride is in a typical season; the maintenance costs on such a simple design cannot be all that much.
17th August 2019
The closest station to Wonder Island on the Saint Petersburg Metro is Krestovsky Ostrov (Крестовский остров), though getting there from Begovaya requires a three quarter hour journey with two changes. We decided instead to use Novokrestovskaya (Новокрестовская), located roughly two kilometres walk from the park at the western end of Krestovsky Island, adjacent to the Gazprom Arena. There was a significant security presence at the station exit including spot document checks, which I've since discovered to have been the advance preparations for a Russian Premier League game between Akhmat Grozny and the local side, FC Zenit. (The match ended up a scoreless draw; a rematch is scheduled for next summer).
The weather for our arrival was glorious, and perhaps unsurprisingly the park was very busy indeed. Unlimited wristbands were on sale, though signage indicated that they were only valid until 8:00pm, an interesting limitation in a park scheduled to remain open until midnight. We would have needed to do seven coaster laps to come out ahead, and the queues were sufficiently lengthy that we'd have been hard pressed to do that within the time available. As such we decided to start off with a single ticket for each of the new coasters, and buy more later if required. I spotted a small number of wristband users during our visit, but they were definitely in the minority.
For some years now the park has been owned by Vladimir Podvalny, a businessman who also serves as director of the nearby Velikolukskiy Meat Processing Plant (Великолукский Мясокомбинат) and over one hundred branded butcher shops in the surrounding Leningrad Oblast. Sponsorship from the larger organisation can be found all over the park, including on a performance stage, on umbrellas, on the menus at food outlets, and most ridiculously of all, in the names of two roller coasters. (Those who've been around this hobby for a while might point to the precedent set by the 7up Shockwave, the Irn-Bru Revolution and the Pepsi Orange Streak, but these attractions at least had a descriptive name to go with their branding; the rides at Wonder Island do not).
We began our visit with Velikolukskiy Myasokombinat (#2750), a production model launched coaster from Mack Rides introduced to the world eleven years ago as Blue Fire at Europa Park. The ride is the fourth of seven examples of the standard layout to date, and there are more to come; an eighth is under construction at Lotte's Magic Forest in South Korea, and a slight variant with a triple-launch will be opening at Dreamworld next Christmas. Seating is on a first-come-first-served basis, though those that want a guaranteed front have the option of buying a ₽350 (~€4.83) ticket. We decided to buy standard ₽300 (~€4.14) tickets and got upgraded as there was nobody with the premium tickets waiting when we were next in line.
The ride was as close to coaster nirvana as it is possible to get, delivering a minute-long thrill with none of the rattle found on its Emirati twin. The only slight negative was the lack of theming. An industrial vacuum extruder on the station platform (pictured above) was the sole decoration; the dark ride area at the start of the layout was a tour through a bare concrete box. It occurs to me that a fifteen second animatronic sausage-making demonstration with some scent effects would have added just the right level of tackiness to the overall experience, while also doubling as a way to irritate vegans – if anyone from the park is reading this, how about it?
Our second stop was Velikolukskiy Myasokombinat-2 (#2751), a ten inversion coaster from Intamin with a spaceship-themed station. Though visually similar to Colossus at Thorpe Park, the hardware turned out to be the improved "B" model with lap bar restraints, identical to Altair and Lightspeed. We were about a third of the way into the queue when the ride broke down, but guests leaving at a fairly steady rate ensured that we kept moving forward. The operators transferred off the active train as we arrived in the station, moving the second one on in its place; though there was nothing visually amiss it seems likely that the computer was unhappy with something.
After two test trains we were invited to board. The front row was taken by a premium ticket holder, but we were able to exchange our ₽300 (~€4.14) tickets for the back. Sadly I have to report that the overall comfort level in those seats was disappointing for a two-and-a-bit year old coaster, worthy of no more than a seven out of ten at best. The key issue was a continuous vibration that was particularly problematic at the fastest points of the layout. My trip report from Wonderland Eurasia recorded mild vibration in the rear of the equivalent but somewhat newer machine, which would tend to suggest that this is an issue inherent to the design, perhaps one that gets worse as the hardware is put through more cycles.
A few weeks before our trip a well-known theme park web site published a vlog from Wonder Island that included on-board footage from Big Roller Coaster, a custom Schwarzkopf design that spent its formative years at Kure Portopialand in Japan. Though I didn't watch it particularly closely the words "hasn't aged well" tallied precisely with my own recollections, and given that I decided against renewing my acquaintance today. Similarly I decided to pass up the opportunity to repeat Whirl Wind Looping Coaster; having completed all extant versions of the early eighties design a few years ago I'm not particularly anxious to repeat any.
17th August 2019
When in due course we'd had our fill of Wonder Island we took the Metro to Sadovaya (Садовая), then walked about fifteen minutes up the road to the Hard Rock Café for some traditional Russian cuisine. We'd intended to head for our hotel afterwards, but it was still bright outside, and given that we decided to bring forward our visit to Park Planet Leta.
Park Planet Leta
17th August 2019
Park Planet Leta is a collection of rides inside Yuzhno-Primorsky Park, an urban garden located to the south of Saint Petersburg close to Pulkovo Airport. While a Metro line to the area is under construction it is anywhere from three to ten years from completion depending on which article you read. In the interim the park is served by buses and trams (routes 36, 41, and 60), but we decided that it would be altogether less effort to use Gett. This was in any case not expensive; the twenty-five minute drive from the Hard Rock Café cost just ₽278.70 (~€3.87), which wasn't radically more than the public transport fare for two people would have been.
Our driver let us out an entrance that I'll charitably describe as being under renovation; a number of large concrete paving tiles had been dug up and abandoned, spoiling the vista of an elaborate water fountain commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. (Those with any interest in war memorabilia will find Russia to be second only to North Korea in the quantity and calibre of its monuments, and more get added regularly; the local authorities constructed quite a few around the country for the fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries of the end of World War II).
The park is home to around thirty different attractions, virtually all of which appear to have been acquired from travelling showmen. Most of the hardware is generic, though there is one curiosity in the mix: Das Totale Chaos, a simulator that once operated in Germany under the ownership of Weeber. The ride facade looked like it hadn't been painted in years, and one suspects the interior to have been equally dated; sadly I didn't have a chance to try it as it was closed today. (If the reader will forgive a slight digression, it occurs to me that a quick way to refresh the showreel while remaining true to the ride name would be to take a few minutes of Brexit debate footage from the House of Commons. Orderrr!).
We handed over ₽30 (~€0.42) for a rechargeable swipe card, then topped it up with ₽160 (~€2.22) per person for the Caterpillar (#2752). The third Big Apple of the day was a Sartori build, yet despite its western provenance it once again had a ridiculously slow lift hill. I found myself wondering whether a failed motor might have been replaced with a local equivalent at some point in the past; it seems unlikely that the owners would intentionally slow throughput in a pay-per-ride park. We narrowly missed a dispatch after getting the Russian for entrance (Вход) and exit (выход) reversed, though fortunately we didn't have to wait all that long for our own three lap cycle.
In an unusual (and possibly unique) move the park charges a higher price for its family coaster than its larger Zyklon. Roller Coaster (#2753) is an elderly and decrepit DPV Rides machine that operated for almost a decade at nearby Gagarin Park Saint Petersburg. Despite its somewhat shabby appearance however the ride quality was absolutely fine; we'd very likely have gone for more than one ₽150 (~€2.08) lap had the final brake not been a dead stop akin to hitting a brick wall. My left knee took the brunt of the punishment, providing me with an excellent opportunity to mispronounce some local swearwords.