We'd intended to begin our seventh morning in Russia at Sochi Park, but decided to reorder things on the fly due to opening hours and weather conditions. That was how we found ourselves driving east towards Rosa Khutor (Роза Хутор), a mountain resort famous for having hosted the alpine skiing events of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The primary access route to the so-called "Mountain Village" is a cable car from Krasnaya Polyana (Красная Поляна), though enthusiasts on a tight schedule should probably plan to drive to the peak. The road is not an easy one, but the surface was in fairly good condition today aside from a three hundred metre stretch close to the top which had apparently collapsed in a landslide. Navigating the temporary gravel replacement was quite exciting, given the lack of any crash barrier to protect from a steep drop, but a permanent replacement was under construction and will presumably be complete by the time these words are read. There is limited free parking at 43.6619, 40.3162 and visitors also have the option of driving into the complex after passing security checks. This comes at a cost, though there is no charge for the first hour.
The walk from the main entrance to the Rodelbahn (Родельбан) is just shy of a kilometre, much of it uphill. The route passes by a convenience store and a wide selection of restaurants, including Поль бейкери, Papa Johns (Папа Джонс), and even an Irish pub. Our timing was perfect in theory if not in practice; we arrived a few minutes before the start time listed on the official web site, only to discover that the it was out by half an hour. On the positive side morning checks were underway, indicating that the ride would be opening shortly. We used our unexpected spare time to explore and take photographs, though not of the prominent Olympic Rings logo as that shots in front of that required an on the spot cash payment.
We were first in line when the ride opened, and found a scenic and respectably lengthy track that was almost completely worthless from an enthusiast perspective due to the fact that it had automatic braking everywhere. Trims before tight corners were bad enough, but there was one point in the layout where a drop of twenty feet went directly into a magnetic limiter that slowed my sled to a walking pace for absolutely no reason. The descent from top to bottom with no deliberate braking on my part took around two and a half minutes, and I suspect I'd have completed it in half the time if unchecked. I thought about riding twice even still, given that I'm unlikely to return any time soon, but decided that a repeat really wasn't worth the ₽650 (~€8.83) asking price.
At the moment all guest access to the ride is from a boarding station at the highest point of the layout. A second station and ticket office has been built at the base, though at the moment it stands alone on undeveloped wasteland. In a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense there was no bypassing this exit today; it was necessary to disembark, walk around a corner, scan our tickets again, and board a different sled for the return to the apex. To add to the fun the ticket scanner wasn't working today, leading to quite a bit of back and forth over the radio before an operator allowed us into the station through a side gate.
23rd August 2019
Sochi Olympic Park is an enormous sports and entertainment complex that was built to host the Winter Olympics in 2014. A forty-thousand seat stadium and a number of smaller arenas have been laid out in a circular pattern around a fountain and plaza, which is bounded on two sides by a race track used for the Russian Grand Prix. The area is also home to Sochi Park (Сочи Парк), widely considered to be the first international standard theme park in Russia.
There are thousands of parking spaces in the broad area, though those close to the park entrance are shared with a number of nearby hotels and as such are in very short supply. After some back and forth we decided to adopt local technique and improvised our own space on a side road. Any guilt we might have felt was assuaged almost immediately as a number of other vehicles followed our example. We were a little concerned that our actions would lead to a love letter from a friendly neighbourhood traffic warden, but I'm pleased to report that we escaped without one. Those interested in a hassle-free access route should probably take a train to Olympic Park (Олимпийский Парк); the station is approximately ten minutes walk from the park entrance.
The park has twenty-one rides, almost all of which are included within the standard ₽2000 (~€27.17) admission fee. There are two exceptions as of this writing, both of which are located outside of the gated area. The first is Bogatyr's Race (богатырские Гонки), a child-sized car ride and driving school that was under maintenance during our visit. The other is the Wheel of Time, a sixty metre high Ferris wheel with an elaborate lighting package. We made a spirited attempt to purchase a combination ticket that included a lap on the latter, given that it was probably the best vantage point for photography, but couldn't make the staff understand what we wanted.
The colourful main entrance building disguises an airport-style security check with metal detectors and bag scanners. This leads out into the so-called Alley of Lights, the first of six distinctive themed lands, and one focused primarily on separating guests from their hard-earned rubles. It features a variety of shops and restaurants on both sides of an artificial lake, as well as an activity center and a collection of paid interactive games. At the far end stands the Fairy Tale Carousel, an off-the-shelf Zamperla machine decorated with reproductions of works by the famous Russian artist Ivan Bilibin; though it nominally has a 75kg (165lbs) weight limit the rule was clearly not being enforced today.
We took a left turn at the end of the midway into the Land of Science and Fiction, where we found our first target: the sixth and presumably last global installation of the Vekoma Giant Inverted Boomerang. I remember being surprised when the ride was first announced; it was hardly a secret that the first three examples ofthetype were a maintenance challenge, and though units four and five were supposed to be better it's fair to say that the investment represented a leap of faith on the part of park management. My guess is that the decision was driven at least in part by visual impact; the two vertical lift towers are clearly visible from the adjacent racetrack on the long straight between turns one and two, providing recurrent free advertising to motorsport fans around the world.
Quantum Leap (#2777) has a striking purple colour scheme that looks particularly dramatic in the midday sun. It is accessed through a themed entrance gate that leads to an extended cattle grid decorated with information placards. The text on these is remarkably detailed and informative, to the point that they could have been written for a coaster enthusiast publication; they mention the five other units, the top speed, the fifty-eight metre height, the weight of the train, and the number of passengers. They also give a concise explanation of why the design is referred to as an "inverted boomerang" and a run down of the safety systems, covering sensors, pneumatic and hydraulic brakes, and what happens when an evacuation is needed. They even talk about routine inspections, which are handled both by Rosacreditation and TÜV SÜD.
There was plenty of time to translate the signage thanks to a three quarter hour queue, roughly twice the lengthy that it would have been with more efficient operations. Loading speeds were better than China, but not much; the team on duty today were managing to dispatch roughly once every nine minutes for an approximate throughput of two hundred guests per hour. The theoretical figure for the design is more than four times that, and while that assumes German fair level efficiency (not least a 45 second unload/load cycle) it shouldn't be that much of a stretch for operators to achieve fifteen dispatches per hour. The lion's share of the delay today was caused by a lengthy spiel in the local patois, delivered in person by a ride operator to oncoming guests; the talk was only started after the station had been emptied, and air gates were only filled after it had been completed. If it had been that important I expect it would have been repeated in English.
The ride uses the older style of rolling stock with staggered seating rather than the upgraded design introduced on Goliath in 2014. This led to the usual Chinese fire drill on boarding as guests in line for outside seats abruptly discovered that they wouldn't be sitting with their friends. The seat I'd been expecting to occupy was taken when I returned after storing my glasses, but I was able to claim a replacement on the right hand edge about two thirds of the way back. For once I was glad to see seatbelts supplementing the overhead restraints; though I've got every confidence in Vekoma engineering the fact remains that riders' entire weight rests on the harness locks for the climb up the reverse lift hill, and were one to fail the results would not be pretty.
The on board experience was very good, worthy of at least a nine out of ten. The restraints felt secure without being oppressive, and there were no issues at all with headbanging. The tracking wasn't quite to the level of newergeneration Vekoma hardware, but it compared favourably with other examples of the type; the only noticeable bumps were in the boomerang element, and they were not of sufficient intensity to trigger colourful metaphors. The freefall sensation on the initial drop was excellent, and I'd gone back to experience it again if the wait time had been a little shorter.
Our second tick was Sharolet (#2778) a not-even-remotely-wild mouse themed to Pin Code (Пин-Код), a popular local cartoon series. On television the Spherical Flying Machine is an aircraft on which the Smeshariki visit space and study the universe; in real life it is a soporific roller coaster with rusty track and poor cornering. Magnetic trim brakes in the zig zag sections of layout prevent the cars from picking up much speed, delivering an experience with even less excitement than Coast Rider; the contrast against the thrilling mouse at Detskiy Park could not have been more pronounced. As a fun aside, the Google Translate version of the official web site describes the ride as one that "will allow you to share unforgettable emotions with the most expensive people." A Russian-speaking colleague at work tells me that "dearest/closest people" is a better translation, though it occurs to me that significant others are indeed expensive!
Our exploration brought us next into Bogatyr's Land, named for the local equivalent of the knight-errant. There is very little in this area for the average visitor; the only two attractions of consequence are a large tent labelled as the Sochi Park Arena and an eighteen metre high themed pirate ship, the latter described in the park map as a Giant Swing. The south-eastern corner has a life size optical illusion of a fountain apparently supporting a large boulder using water pressure alone, and the Invisibility Cloak Photo Studio can be found nearby. Perhaps I'm overthinking things, but surely a picture taken in an invisibility cloak would be the same as one with nobody in it?
The biggest section of the park as of this writing is the Enchanted Forest, though the name feels a little misplaced for an area that is almost entirely devoid of trees. It is here that one finds the park's largest coaster, a Blue Fire clone with yellow track. The designers of Serpent Dragon (#2779) have done a phenomenal job with the ride facade; a three headed beast guards the entrance, and the station and maintenance buildings have been painted with elaborate frescoes showing the famed creature in action. Unfortunately the budget appears have run out before any work was done on the interior, and the experience suffers for it; the station is an empty white box, the pre-launch dark ride area is a bare concrete shell, and the track stands forlorn above unpainted gravel. Worse yet, the ride has a definite rattle reminiscent of the equivalent machine in in Dubai that greatly reduces the enjoyment factor. Two trains were in use today, resulting in almost no wait, but we were content to stop after a pair of laps, one in front and one in back.
Also in this area was Drifter (#2780), a truly dire family coaster with an oval track "navigated" by a twelve seat spinning car. The ride is a clone of Yolo Works, and while the comfort level is slightly better than its brother it remains an experience best reserved for convicted criminals and/or prisoners of war. The heavy over-the-shoulder harnesses delivered random blows to the side of the head while the ride was in motion, and the entire vehicle shuddered badly when passing over the tyre drives. Better tracking and restraints might have made the ride less obnoxious, but it still wouldn't have been fun; the sensations at full speed were eminently dull. It's telling that the only two versions of this design have been built; nobody in their right mind would buy another.
With the coasters out of the way we made our way into the officially licensed Roller Coaster Restaurant for some lunch. The touch screen menu, which was available in English, had a fairly typical complement of burgers, salads, and wok dishes – accompanied by an extremely impressive selection of alcoholic cocktails as befits the host country. The service was very fast; my order was delivered in less than five minutes after passing through a vertical loop overhead. The pricing wasn't bad at all, though readers should be aware that the portions were child-sized; I ended up ordering a second main course and could have made a fair stab at a third.
We paid our bill and wandered back into the park, ending up at the Eco Village and Kiddie Zone. The main attraction in this area was a dolphinarium, and it was evidently popular; a show had just ended when we arrived and hundreds of guests were streaming out from the exit. We also spotted a theatre, a petting zoo, and a selection of standard flat rides reserved for younger visitors, including Little Hump Backed Horse (a miniature carousel) and Funny Pirate (a themed Frog Hopper).
The adjacent Sea Kingdom was anchored (d'oh!) by Buyan, a Mack Rides Splash Battle with ten boats and a number of special effects. It stood next to a pool with electric boats supplied by Ukrainian manufacturer RIF; the designers apparently couldn't make up their mind about which theme they wanted so they went for a selection of different ones. The last ride in this area was Chudo-Yudo Fish-Whale, a compact carnival-style log flume that was identical in design to the version that tours in Ireland. The convoluted name originates from a legendary multi-headed dragon, one of the guardians of the Water of Life and Death; Chudo-Yudo was traditionally invoked in times of drought.
Our final ride ended up being Firebird, a new generation tower ride from S&S Sansei that had been under maintenance when we'd passed it earlier in the day. The sixty-five metre high attraction resembles one of the older combo towers, but for the fact that the car has a ring of seats rather than the rectangular design of the past. As ever it launches upwards, bounces a few times, moves to the top, then launches back downwards again. I'd have preferred a slightly more powerful descent, but that is really a nitpick; the experience on the whole was very good.
23rd August 2019
It was mid-afternoon when we decided we'd had our fill of Sochi Park. We could have gone directly to our overnight hotel for a relaxed afternoon and evening, but decided instead to use the time for a second attempt at the relocated Schwarzkopf in Lazarevskoye Park. This mission was a success, though it came at a cost; the two hundred kilometre round trip drive took over six hours to complete due to extremely heavy traffic in both directions.
Eighteen examples of the Jet Star 1 were built between 1968-1977. Today there are just five still in operation: one touring in Argentina, one touring in France, and three permanently installed in parks. Roller Coaster is the oldest of the latter, having started its career at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in 1972. The track on the forty-seven year old ride was a little rusty, but the comfort level was every bit as good as it would have been when new, and well worth the ₽350 (~€4.75) ticket cost. The only slight oddity came at the start, when the rolled onto the lift and stopped before the chain started moving; one presumes that that sequence reduces wear on the chain at the expense of the anti-rollback dogs.