In early March the percolating situation with the COVID-19 virus abruptly escalated as large parts of the world went into lockdown. Air travel collapsed as countries shut their borders, and businesses around the world slashed their spending. My own employer was hit badly by the crisis, resulting in a significant number of redundancies – and my role was one of the ones deemed surplus to requirements. I’d been thinking about taking a sabbatical for a while, so the separation was less painful than it might have been, but it’s fair to say that my ideas for using an extended break were predicated on being allowed to travel more than two kilometres from my home.
After the initial shock wore off I set about trying to find a new job, but I was also determined to do something productive between interviews. I'd worked on computer games for a few years in my late teens, and decided to resurrect and revitalise that skill by remaking some of the classics for twenty-first century macOS. The lack of any other demands on my brain gave me unusual focus, allowing me to take a dozen different titles from scribbled notes to the Mac App Store over a seven week period. The finished games (and a number of others that I've churned out since) can be found over at RetroGamesForMac.com, and I'd be very grateful if readers could help spread the word to anyone who might be interested.
On 7th July I accepted a new position with a start date at the end of the month. I spent the balance of the week clearing my to-do list and excavating a foot-deep debris field from my kitchen table, and with both tasks complete I decided to book a holiday to recharge the proverbial batteries. The Irish government advice at the time was for its citizens to avoid non-essential international travel, and in deference to that I built out a domestic routing involving the full length of the Wild Atlantic Way. The plan would have ticked most of the important boxes despite its lamentable lack of roller coasters, but I decided against putting it into practice after reading reports of tourists arriving into Ireland on direct flights from some of the worst-affected areas of the United States. The risk of running into an asymptomatic carrier (or worse yet, an infected-but-selfish Make America Great Again type) was far too high for my taste.
After much soul-searching I decided to take a calculated risk by travelling overseas. I did this in the full understanding that I would be expected to self-isolate for fourteen days on my return, which I felt to be an acceptable compromise for getting the change of scenery that I wanted with minimal risk to those around me. I confirmed with my new manager that an enforced quarantine would not present an issue, and he told me that it would be fine as the entire team would be in work-from-home mode until the start of October at the absolute earliest. (That date has since been pushed into 2021, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was extended further.)
I looked at a few possible destinations within the European Union using two blunt metrics: the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the previous two weeks, and the number of respectable new roller coaster credits on offer. The only place to score well in both categories was Denmark, which had roughly half the number of infections relative to Ireland despite a higher population and a much greater frequency of testing. Temporary border control regulations introduced for the pandemic required a stay of at least six nights, and I decided to stretch that to nine by adding a selection of tourist stops in between my usual theme parks. The final routing was assembled in great haste and booked less than twenty-four hours before flying, an approach that I rather suspect will be my "new normal" for the foreseeable future.
The outbound journey through Dublin Airport was a surreal experience. The terminal building wasn’t completely empty, but it felt like a ghost town, with staff outnumbering passengers in both the check-in and security screening areas. There were a few more people visible in the departures lounge, but it was still eerily quiet, with just ten flights listed on the board over a two-hour period. The usual junk food selection was gone from the vending machines in favour of hand sanitiser, tissues, and medical masks, and the vast majority of the shops and restaurants were closed. On a happier note, passengers were keeping their distance from each other and virtually everyone was wearing a mask; the only exceptions I saw were two off-duty flight attendants who really should have known better.
The flight to Copenhagen on EI-EPA (my 74th different Ryanair aircraft, yes I am a nerd) was about two thirds full, but I had nobody sitting next to me and row behind was similarly unoccupied. The crew reminded people to remain seated for the entire flight, and as far as I could see that was what happened. (Maybe it’s unfounded prejudice on my part, but I suspect that compliance with health regulations on flights to Scandinavia is somewhat better than that on routes to alcoholic holidays in the Balearic Islands.) There were no hot drinks available, but otherwise the service was unchanged from happier times, allowing all to enjoy the you-too-can-be-a-millionaire spiel for lottery tickets and the ridiculous jingle played after an on-time landing.
In deference to the laws of budget airlines our flight arrived at a remote stand, where it disgorged into overcrowded buses where any hope of social distancing went out the wide-open window. That said, all passengers remained masked and there was no chatter to speak of. After ten minutes of driving past parked up aircraft we were released into an empty arrivals area located a short walk away from passport control. Formalities took quite a while as the officers were checking paperwork thoroughly, but I had mine in order and in due course I was through. My bag was waiting for me, and I collected it before walking across the road to check in for three nights at the airport Clarion.
14th July 2020
It is possible to drive into Copenhagen, but there’s very little point in bringing a car to Tivoli Gardens as the city’s main train station is directly across the road from the park’s western entrance. A non-stop service from the airport takes just fifteen minutes and costs 36 DKK (~€4.83) – only a smidge more than the hourly daytime parking rate in the so-called red zone that covers the central part of the city. I thought about buying a wristband straight away but decided on reflection that it would be better to decamp to the nearby Radhuspladsen for some traditional Danish cuisine. An hour later I made my way under the famous archway for the first time in more than a decade.
The park has introduced two major operational changes this year that will presumably remain in place for the duration of the pandemic. The first is a control on capacity: alternate seats on many of the rides have been filled with teddy bears as a cute way of enforcing social distancing. This was a definite improvement over the crime scene tape used by other parks on this trip, though it would be remiss of me not to note that the elements had taken their toll on the bedraggled ursinae, more than a few of which looked like they'd been fished out of a river (or perhaps a swamp).
The second is mandatory virtual queueing: the major attractions now require a reservation made using a mobile phone app. The concept is great in principle, though the implementation puts solo visitors at a distinct disadvantage, as each device can be used by up to six guests; groups with more than one phone can easily hold multiple reservations in parallel. For my visit this was very obvious in the queue times; at 5:15pm on a Tuesday evening both major coasters were reporting three hour waits, and the new-for-2019 powered coaster (and the lead item on my personal shopping list) was showing at almost five. I reserved anyway (needs must) while mentally kicking myself for not thinking to do so before having dinner. (Readers should also be aware that the software requires enabling Bluetooth and Location Services; those who value their privacy need not apply.)
The south-eastern corner of the park is home to a number of rides geared at younger visitors, including miniature bumper cars, a carousel, and a family coaster. Three different Zierer products have operated in this area over the years. The first to take up residence was Mariehønen, the debut installation of what subsequently became the Tivoli family; it ran from 1974 through to the mid-nineties, when it was disassembled and scrapped. It was replaced by Karavanen, a variant model with a six car train that increased capacity by twenty percent over its predecessor. (That version was taken apart at the end of the 2018 season, though it has since begun a new life at Le Fleury.)
The most recent upgrade is Kamelen (#2862), a stretched version of the Force Zero with an eight car train in place of the standard six. The rolling stock has been given an elaborate theme, complete with a decorative figurehead that lights up at night. The area around the ride has also been spruced up (and it was definitely needed). It was scarcely a surprise to find a substantial queue, though the demographic was quite different to what I'd expected; only a small percentage of patrons were children. My guess is that most of the adult-only groups were killing time while waiting to be called back to bigger rides; this seems an altogether more plausible explanation than a chance encounter with dozens of coaster enthusiasts.
After about forty minutes in line I took a seat in the back row for my first coaster ride in almost five months, and it was wonderful. There was no obvious airtime, and no forces to speak of, but it didn't matter in the slightest; the four-lap cycle was pure unadulterated fun, and an overdue reminder of why I enjoy this hobby so much. I found myself thinking back to something a ride operator said to me a long time ago; if you can't have fun in amusement parks you can't have fun at all!
My second stop was at Den Flyvende Kuffert (The Flying Trunk), a respectably lengthy multi-level dark ride from Mack Rides based on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The installation dates from 1993, though the original hardware was overhauled and upgraded for the 2010 season. I'd have probably gotten more from the experience with better knowledge of the source material, but the presentation was top notch and I enjoyed it very much. (As an aside, the final scene features an animatronic HCA sitting at a desk in evening wear, which made me giggle; it's years since I've worn formal attire for work, and I suspect the same to be true for most readers.)
The park's second dark ride is even better. Minen (Mine) is described on the official website as a fantastic journey through the land of the Grotes, guarded by the dragon, Mistress Mother-of-Pearl. In plainer terms it is a highly themed target shooter from Mack Rides that uses a flume as its transport system. The guns are different colours, and the bright purple lights switch to the shade that hit them, allowing those on board to keep score. The layout includes lots of scenery, a turntable, and around thirty seconds of complete darkness. The half-hour queue reflected the calibre of the experience, and I'd definitely have gone back for a second round if the wait had been a little shorter.
I spent almost an hour wandering the park with my camera before deciding that I'd been on my feet for long enough. I found a table and cold drink in Joe & the Juice, a popular smoothie chain with branches all over Denmark (and apparently the world). It was evident that most if not all of the other patrons were also in virtual line; every few minutes a phone would chirp and a table would be vacated. I'd expected to be ensconced for the better part of two hours, and was pleasantly surprised when my phone lit up at 8:10pm, a good ninety minutes earlier than expected; my guess is that a significant percentage of those in virtual line ahead of me had failed to respond when called.
Mælkevejen (Milky Way Express) is a Mack powered coaster that was built last year to replace Odinexpressen, a similar machine that had reached the end of its service life after thirty-three seasons of operation. The layout follows that of its predecessor quite closely, though there are some minor differences in track shaping to allow for both a faster and a smoother experience. The high point (both physically and figuratively) is a descending helix at the southern edge of the layout that delivers several seconds of sustained force. The three-lap cycle was pleasantly lengthy, and I very much enjoyed it, though it would be hard to justify more than thirty minutes wait for a repeat.
Face masks were obligatory while on board Mælkevejen, and though I'd come prepared it was good to see disposable examples being handed out free of charge at the station entrance. I'd have liked to have seen more mask use in general, though in fairness the Danish authorities had yet to make a ruling on the subject as of my visit. The only advice was to stay one metre apart where possible, hold afstand being the phrase-du-jour.
There wasn’t enough time left for me to experience both big coasters before park close, so I decided to prioritise the Rutschebanen. The initial slot allocated to me was ninety minutes out, but the time moved forward rapidly as my earlier one had done, and at 9:20pm I was called. I joined the queue at 9:25pm, just moments before the entrance was blocked off by a security guard. Guests with valid reservations continued to arrive over the next while but were refused entry, resulting in some extremely angry exchanges, and rightly so: those with valid reservations should really have been accommodated before the ride closed for the night. (Danish people are apparently very good at swearing with emphasis; I learned all manner of interesting words that may prove useful some day.)
On a happier note, the luck of the draw put me in the front seat for my first and only lap, which was everything I could have hoped for and much more besides. The comfort level was flawless, and there was proper airtime on every hill, making for a superb end to a pleasant if somewhat sparse evening. My only regret was not having time to renew my acquaintance with Dæmonen, but c’est la vie; with luck it’ll still be there the next time I find myself in the area.
Postscript: I walked past Tivoli Gardens two days later after a day of sightseeing in the city, and looked at queue times on a whim. Mælkevejen was at an incredible 425 minutes, and both proper coasters were in excess of 180. I made a reservation for Dæmonen for the heck of it before catching the train back to my hotel. On arrival I had a shower, ate dinner, edited my photographs, and was two thirds of the way through an episode of For All Mankind (highly recommended) when my phone let me know that it was time to join the queue. I decided to stay where I was.
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