One of the wonderful things about living in Ireland is the amount of annual leave guaranteed by law. All full-time employees are entitled to twenty-nine days off per annum, and it's not unusual for companies (particularly those in the technology world) to offer well in excess of this to attract and retain talent. Despite starting a new job at the end of July I found myself with a pro-rated allocation of fourteen and a half days to burn before year end, and as the calendar was fully booked over Christmas I decided that I might as well use what I could before the end of the summer.
I'd have loved to have gone to somewhere in Asia, but the COVID situation made that completely impossible. The only easily accessible alternative with open theme parks was Germany, and I spent a few evenings building out an itinerary even as the epidemiological situation in my home city of Dublin began to deteriorate. I figured that it was safe to book only after the Robert Koch Institute omitted Ireland from its risk list on 16th September, but even then I made sure that everything was refundable just in case. (As things turned out I was just in time; a few hours after my flight landed the powers that be asked residents of Dublin to avoid international travel, and a few days after that the RKI designated the entire region as a risk area, which would have resulted in a mandatory quarantine.)
Dublin Airport was somewhat busier than it had been for my trip in July, and there was even a moderate queue for security, though closer inspection revealed that to be because only two of the sixteen lanes were open. As ever I used a Fast Track coupon to avoid the masses, allowing me to clear all formalities in less than five minutes. The shopping area on the far side of security felt almost normal, though regular free-standing hand sanitiser stations and blocked-off seating areas served as very real reminders that we continue to live in interesting times.
The flight to Frankfurt was my first encounter with Malta Air, a subsidiary of Ryanair that operates with what can diplomatically be described as different terms and conditions to the parent company. The aircraft was 9H-QCI, one of many transferred off the Irish register over the last few years; it was scarcely a surprise to discover that I'd flown it under its previous identity of EI-FRB on the way home from Amsterdam in April 2016. There were around fifty people on board, which probably explains why I was able to buy a ticket for €7.95 just two days before departure. (While exact running costs for aircraft vary by operator and depend on the price of fuel, a typical figure for a 737-800 is €2000 per flying hour, which suggests rather strongly that this service was operating at a significant loss.).
I'd expected arrival in Germany to be bureaucratic, but it was absolutely painless. We disembarked using an airbridge, and after a short walk I was able to use self-service passport control, allowing me to get all the way through to baggage reclaim without speaking to another human. The rental car process was efficient as always, and as a result I was driving away just thirty minutes after landing.
18th September 2020
One of the problems with trying to plan a coaster trip outside of peak season is working around limited opening hours. Though most German parks operate daily between March and October, a subset switch to weekend-only operation in September, turning itinerary creation into a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. The two respectabledestinations that I could pair with a mid-morning arrival in Frankfurt were closed, and I decided on reflection that a lone middle-aged male with no German might not receive the warmest of welcomes at small indoor FECs. That was how I found myself at Erlebnispark Steinau, a family park with a dozen rides and a wide selection of play equipment.
In an ideal world I'd have begun my visit with the Pendelbahn, a Sunkid Heege Butterfly located just to the left of the park entrance. Sadly it wasn't to be; my brave attempt to tick it off was foiled by a metal shield surrounding the control box that made self-starting impossible. There were no other guests in sight, and rather than hang around I decided to come back later. The park's second coaster was similarly inaccessible, though this at least was not a surprise; the miniature single-seat car on Erli's Seifenkiste has a 35kg (~77lbs) weight limit that render it off limits to all but the youngest of enthusiasts. Ten installations of the Gerstlauer Kiddy Racer have been built to date, and no matter what the official line might be I remain entirely certain that it was created with the express purpose of annoying coaster counters.
The star attraction in the park and the main draw for visitors over the age of eight is Spessart-Flitzer, a Wiegand Sommerrodelbahn that premiered in 1995. There is a certain amount of homogeneity among these rides – in plain language, if you've done one, you've done them all – but this one at least earned points for sheer length, with just over half a kilometre of descending track. My initial lap with minimal braking took around a minute, plus another four and change for the cable lift back to the start point. It was a very good way to clear what was left of the morning cobwebs, and I took the time to enjoy a second lap without using the brake at all.
I also enjoyed the Pferdchen-Reitbahn, a self-operated pony rail. This was fine, if understated; from the station it looked like the track disappeared into greenery, but in reality it came out again seconds later with no theming along the way. Despite its obvious limits however a number of local children were clearly enthralled by the experience, doing repeated laps while their parents sat nearby.
After a little more exploration I took up station on a bench in front of the credit to wait for someone else to show up. Almost three quarters of an hour later (this is a stupid hobby) a member of staff came by, and through the magic of Google Translate I managed to get him to push the button for me. Moments later I was able to claim the Pendelbahn (#2874) as my forty-first different Butterfly, and all was good. (In researching this trip report I've discovered that I've ridden less than half of the sixty-eight extant examples of the type as of end-2020; I've obviously got some work to do.)
Affen- und Vogelpark
18th September 2020
Four years ago I travelled to Affen- und Vogelpark to experience an elderly Heege Butterfly that had been a staple of the park for twenty-five years. My assumption at the time was that I'd never be back, though as we've all realised this year one can never tell what the future will bring. A second example of the type was added just three months after my visit, and earlier this year the original machine was retired in favour of a brand new model straight from the factory. Two new credits represented all the justification I needed for a return trip. (As an aside, it turns out that the park isn't the only one to have had three unique butterflies over the years; both Funny-World and Potts Park hold membership in that truly exalted club.)
Butterfly (2020) (#2875) has been installed in the same place as the original machine, and from a distance it looks more or less the same. It is only up close that the difference becomes obvious, as the yellow bucket of the past has been replaced with a shiny red and yellow fiberglass vehicle that looks a great deal less utilitarian. Inflation has taken hold in that the ride price has doubled to €1, though on the plus side a second person isn't necessary to get the ride going; simply deposit the coin, close the doors, press start, and off you go. After an enjoyable cycle I made my way downhill where I found Butterfly (2016) (#2876), and two minutes later I'd ticked it off too.
I was just about to leave when I was accosted by two middle-aged German ladies in need of someone to push the start button on the Luna Loop for them. It was a treat to be on the other side of that particular fence for a change, and I was more than happy to oblige. They were hilarious to watch (and listen to); I’m not entirely sure that they’d realised what the ride did prior to boarding.
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