Russia Introduction


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In July, we traveled to Russia, native land of the ice slides that evolved into the modern roller coaster.  It’s where it all began: the place without which there would be no credit whores, no feelings of sheer euphoria that come with finding that truly special ride, no playground fights between rival enthusiass factions, no raised eyebrows when I tell people that this is my hobby.

It’s certainly an interesting place, not least of all because it’s been gaining steam in the news lately, what with the Olympics scheduled for Sochi this winter and the fact that its lawmakers are in desperate need of a wake-up call that commences with Macklemore’s “Same Love” playing on loop.

Controversies notwithstanding, Russia is fascinating.  It’s given rise to some of the world’s greatest gymnasts and one of Family Guy’s most quoted jokes. The Cold War left millions of Americans paranoid, the Space Race literally rocketed the capabilities of science and technology further than many thought possible and that vertical red piece has led to many a triumphant Tetris player.

Coaster-wise, though, Russia is by no means a top destination for enthusiasts.  On the contrary, Richard described it at one point as “scraping the bottom of the coaster barrel.”  It’s a bit of a disappointment considering it’s the country that started it all, but as with any journey to a foreign country, to focus on the coasters at the expense of the culture as a whole would be a waste of a trip.

Our itinerary took us to Moscow and Saint Petersburg with several other enthusiasts over the span of four days.  I went into it with open expectations and came away with an appreciation for the chance to see the country, a disdain for its inability to provide a clean public toilet anywhere, an admiration for some of the most amazing architecture in the world, a bewilderment that this amazing architecture is frequently located within an uninspired concrete shithole, a reawakened love for McDonald’s and, of course, a metric ton of Big Apple credits.

 

Happylon

We flew into Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and took the airport express train into the city, passing plenty of what can only be described as “Soviet era” apartment buildings along the way (i.e., uninspired, old, graffiti-covered, gray ugliness).  That was one of the first things I noticed about Moscow—there isn’t really a defined skyline, but rather clusters of identical, often rundown apartment and business towers scattered throughout an enormous concrete landscape.  It’s not a pretty city by any stretch of the imagination, although there are a few stunning architectural pieces here and there.

Our hotel was a Holiday Inn conveniently located about five minutes from the nearest metro station, which was excellent because we relied heavily on the metro system during our stay.  I might argue that what Moscow lacks aesthetically on its surface it more than compensates for underground, because some of these metro stations were quite spectacular (there are tours in Moscow that focus solely on the metro stations, if that’s any indicator)—not to mention that this was, by far, the most efficient subway system I’ve ever seen.  We never waited more than three minutes for a train (some of which looked like they were right out of the 1940s (and probably were)—think metal cylinders with wheels, and goodness, were they ever loud since the small windows near the car ceilings were always open because air conditioning?  Who needs air conditioning in Moscow?).

Bags thrown into room and executive lounge refrigerator raided for bottled water, we then met up with our other trip members in the lobby and set off that evening for our first park of the trip, Happylon…

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…which began by descending into the bowels of the earth.  No, really.  Those subways are deep.

 

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And you get another picture of a metro station because we became quite acquainted with them early, as it took longer than expected to find Happylon.  We made a mistake and took a little offshoot of the light blue line, so to deter you from sniggering about five confused tourists trying to make sense of printout walking directions and questioning the presence of a river that wasn’t supposed to be there and wasting twenty minutes walking up and down a filthy-smelling sidewalk because everyone in this country smokes and finally attempting to understand a kind Russian commuter explain/gesture/point where to go and bloody hell I’m getting hungry, why did I only bring one package of fruit snacks with me oh right because I didn’t think it’d take an hour and half to find this place, just look at this architecture instead!  By golly, aren’t those some fabulous chandeliers!

 

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But we eventually figured it out.

 

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Happylon is located on the top floor of a mall that contains roughly every retail store known to man.  There was even a supermarket in there.

 

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It’s a FEC with a medieval theme.

 

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On the whole, it’s a nice, colorful place with a decent collection of rides and attractions—drop tower, Frisbee, bumper cars, arcade games and a large climbing play structure, to name a few.  It’s obviously aimed for the younger set, although for a Friday night, it wasn’t that busy.

 

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Which is why I’m sure it looked rather odd when one of our group approached the ticket counter and tried to convey we needed five tickets for the roller coaster with absolutely no children in sight.  I would have gladly volunteered for this task, except I’m not sure how to say, “Hi, in fact we are five adults seeking a ride on your children’s roller coaster because we are pathetic and sad but this is what we do and if you’re just willing to alter your definition of ‘normal,’ I promise this would totally not reek of weirdness at all; take our money, now, please?” in Russian.

 

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But hey, we managed to buy five rides without too much difficulty and we were even able to start climbing these stairs to the loading platform before getting yelled at in Russian!  The poor ride op was trying to convey something—maybe that they only run the ride at certain times and now was most definitely not one of them?—but realized she was getting five blank stares back at her.  She relented and let us through.

 

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As for the coaster, a junior ride from Vekoma called Babylon, it was surprisingly good.  It seemed to have decent speed for what it was, negotiating its various helices with extraordinary smoothness.  It was really quite good fun.

 

DSCN9864And besides, what’s not to love when you have this adorable creature running you along the track?

 

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Well, me apparently.  I was admonished in Russian some more (for pulling my feet up on the seat so Richard could get past me to exit the train to take these photos).  I mean, it’s only fitting that a milestone like this is reached in the country where roller coasters (or at least their ice slide predecessors) originated, so getting yelled at in the local language to commemorate it really authenticated the experience for me.

 

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When I was maybe three or four, I distinctly remember squeezing a small, white butterfly between my fingers for absolutely no reason at all beyond the fact that I was curious.  According to the Finnish band HIM, this should save my soul.

 

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It did this to my soul instead.

 

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Happylon?  More like Sadlon.  Creepylon.  PsychologicallyDisturbingLon.  TheStuffNightmaresAreMadeOfLon.

 

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…which is apparently all stored in this room when not in use.

 

I think it’s time to go now.

Moscow was now one for one.  I had made it to 500 credits.  Let’s eat.

 

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Just maybe…maybe not here.

Opting for the Hard Rock Café over Crapdogs (come on, that’s what you saw too), we enjoyed some Megan-compliant food (let’s just put it out there now that I hate most food.  My eating preferences resemble those of a four year old.  In other words, I starve when I go to foreign countries) before setting out for a nighttime photo session of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Red Square.  I’ll include those photos later because we returned in a few days to properly tour these places.  For now, that’s a wrap for day one.  It was time to rest up for the approximately 86 miles we’d be walking the following day.

 

 

Attrapark VDNKH

Okay, so it would have been just Attrapark if we hadn’t found another park of the same name later in the day.  I included its metro stop location—it’s within what translates as the “All Russian Exhibition Center” —to differentiate.  Actually, if we’re really going to be specific, it would be “Attrapark Vserossijskij Vystavochnyj Tsentr,” but that just looks silly.

Attrapark-Long-Ass-Name was a substantial, well kept rides collection with two entrances off a small road.  It’s part of a complex containing another amusement park, joined by a long pedestrian promenade capped on both ends by some impressive buildings.  Not really knowing what to expect, I was rather impressed with the number of rides available, which included a Maurer mouse, an L&T kiddie and a Schwarzkopf City Jet.  Also impressive was the cost of each ride—close to $10 for a single ride on the larger coasters!

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But I suppose with an entrance like this, one can get away with such exorbitant prices.

 

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The entrance to the park itself is a bit more humble (and, I’d venture, looks quite nice when lit up at night).

 

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But this?  This is not so humble.  

 

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In the past, I’ve criticized Maurer mice for excessive trim brakes and uncomfortable restraints that seem designed precisely to exacerbate the irritation that comes with being halted every few seconds, in that one wonders if the designers have some sort of vendetta against the school bullies who punched them in the stomach as children.  Dorney Park’s Wild Mouse is a perfect example of this.

 

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Tell me what’s missing here.

So I was slipping and sloshing all over the seat…

 

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And then this drop happened, and I went airborne.  For quite some time.

I mean, this thing just ran balls out, no holds barred and was full of surprises literally around every corner.  I don’t think I stopped giggling the whole way.  It was what a wild mouse coaster should be–“boisterous,” as George put it.  Perhaps it owes this to its origins in the German fair circuit.  Perhaps its unusual two-seater cars enable stronger forces or something.  Whatever it is, well done, Attrapark.

 

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TP…OHKA.  TPOHKA…TP…OH…KA.  Tapioca!  Of course!  Tapioca Tapioca Tapioca!  Today’s Russian lesson is brought to you by Kozy Shack.

 

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Up next was the L&T Mini Coaster.  Standard fare here.

 

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I’m really glad that Stereotypical Mexican Mouse is getting along with African Savannah Elephant and Amazonian Monkey, all within the Motherland.  Way to celebrate diversity, kids.

 

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And if that doesn’t accurately depict the bare necessities (of copyright infringement), then I don’t know what does :)

 

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Also, I thought it was really nice of the park to let Martin park his scooter right next to the coaster.

 

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Now this is special.  Tell me that doesn’t look amazing.

 

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Also, these.  These with no restraints.  These, the way they should be.  Attrapark, you know what you’re doing.

 

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It ran very well, too.  The ascent following the first drop was an especially powerful handful of laterals that elicited many grunts and a smashed knee or two in the train.

This was some very good, old fashioned Schwarzkopf fun.

 

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It was the setting of some “Never in America” instances, too—for example, accessing the lead car meant I actually had to step well beyond the safety railing on the ride platform.  Also, the exit platform is separate from the entrance and there is no one there to babysit disembarking riders.  It’s the little things that really make me reflect on the state of the gene pool in my country.

 

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This would never be in America, either.  You don’t need a game to let you vicariously partake in this activity.

 

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But there are some of these left in America.  I like these.  There’s no other reason for this picture beyond telling you that and to showcase my fine talent in taking photos with zero obstructions, like power lines, blocking the subject.

 

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See?  Now let’s follow these handsome feet across the way to Attractionmania, shall we?

 

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Just be on the lookout for any stray vehicles from this driving school attraction that is placed in the not unusual at all location of this imperial building’s front lawn.

Attractionmania

Attractionmania had fewer rides than its neighbor but what it did have seemed to cater more toward thrill seekers.  Granted, it contained a duo of Pax coasters, so it wouldn’t take much else to label this the more extreme of the two—like, Attractionmania could have contained only the Pax rides and a kiddie motorcycle ride and I’d still consider it more extreme than Attrapark.

So Pax.

WTF doesn’t even begin to describe it, but if you can imagine designing a coaster while in a state of delirium, preferably hallucinating about how totally trendy it would be to break the laws of mathematics and then downing a pound or two of chocolate covered gummi bears with three espresso shots while watching Game of Thrones before you put pen to a paper that your cat then decides to walk all over while you try to scribble with both hands because you’ve decided that now is all of a sudden a prime time to see if you’re ambidextrous, which you definitely are not, you can start to get the idea.

But it’s only a start.

Let’s begin by looking at the photo on RCDB I viewed when researching the parks on this trip.

I am not kidding you when I say my jaw dropped and I voiced a “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING?!?!” even though no one was around to hear me (probably a good thing, in retrospect).  I clicked through the photos, eyes wide and mouth agape, the latter closing only when my dog wanted to give me kisses and I didn’t want toxic dog breath tongue in my mouth.

But I kept clicking through, learning that Pax was also responsible for this and this.

I was intrigued, to say the least.  Truth be told, I really wanted Cobra to be #500 because something told me it would be more than a little memorable, but alas, it did not work out that way.

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My Pax initiation instead occurred on Formula.  There were lockers by the entrance (free, BTW, which was good because this place was just as expensive as Attrapark), which suggested something right there.

 

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It starts with a lift whose angle of ascent is approximately Why Is The Sun Burning My Eyes Oh It Is Because I Am Staring Straight Up At It Because I Am Practically Lying On My Back Right Now degrees.

 

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Following is this drop whose moment of ejector airtime occurs just as the car passes under a magnificent headchopper.

 

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Then there’s this double up thing, made more awkward than it already is by the fact that your body was airborne a second ago, so don’t even think about sitting up properly and at a comfortable angle in your seat.

 

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It’s this part.  You remember how in Roller Coaster Tycoon, you had the option of banking a completely straight section of track and you did it to up your ride’s excitement level even though you thought about how weird it looked because no one anywhere did that on a real coaster?

 

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Yeah.

At this point, your car, which looks far too oversized and bulky to be maneuvering around such a track in the first place, is slowly lolling around these hairpin turns like a drunkard.  It was thanks to this part that I took home my first Russian coaster souvenir:  bruises, and lots of them, compliments of the restraint’s metal bar smushing my thighs.

 

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A few more rambunctious drops taken with a middle finger to the laws of physics round out the experience.

We hit the brakes and I knew I was smitten.

 

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So then what would this be like?

In a word?  Terrifying.

In a word plus an absolutely necessary expletive modifier?  Fucking terrifying.

 

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It starts with this bell tolling.  No, really.  It does.  Really doesn’t get any more bad omenish than that, folks.

 

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The cables attach and the train is slowly pulled up the back spike.

 

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Which happens to be vertical.  Which happens to mean that all your weight is pressing against the restraint.  Which happens to be frightening.

 

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It takes a few days to make it to the top.  Or maybe it was only a few minutes.  I dunno.  My knuckles were white for a long time, that’s all I know.

 

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Yeah fine, I screamed out of genuine fear when the train was released, although I regained the ability to think coherently by the time we looped, during which I discerned that the car in front of me was rocking side to side a good deal.  A very good deal.

Up the front spike, backwards through the loop and I expected the brakes to catch like they do in a boomerang but they didn’t.  How naïve to assume Pax would play by the rules!  No, instead the train rushes right back through the station and reaches this point in the loop again before the brakes take over.  It’s like Pax is trying to tease out that irrational fear that the train is going to gain that perfect combination of momentum and balance to valley upside down.

 

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You win, Cobra.

I admit, this was a bit nerve wracking.  That’s why I liked it.  It’s not often anymore that a coaster can elicit genuine fear, but this sure did.  I’m pretty sure the physical aspect of the ride experience was shaky and I know there were a few knocks on my head from the restraint, but to be honest, it was easy to overlook the discomfort amidst a sense of apprehension and disbelief that this garish magenta and yellow thing was actually a roller coaster.

 

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One more visit to the kacca booth was in order for a final ride on Formula before heading out.

 

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Well, Richard and I rode again.  These goofs, well…

 

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Oh yeah, there are other rides here.  We didn’t ride any because the clock was ticking and we’d already sunk enough rubles into the place.  Also, it’s just…kind of tough to follow up Pax with anything except maybe hurtling off a cliff.

 

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Isn’t that right, fully licensed Mickey?

 

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Onward and upward, for the Big Apples await!

 

 

 

Sokolniki Park

Sokolniki Park would contain the first of many “parks within a park” we’d visit.  Moscow boasts many enormous municipal parks that offer small funfairs as one of countless recreational activities, which run the gamut from skateboard ramps to sidewalk cafes to paddleboats to concert venues—really, the range of entertainment options in these places is quite remarkable.

Generally, these parks were landscaped nicely and their abundance of trees certainly made for a welcome, shady oasis from the grit of the surrounding streets—which is good, because sometimes it took a good bit of wandering to actually find the rides!

Martin, however, had been to Sokolniki before and knew exactly where to lead us, which resulted in a short walk to the credit standing not far from the park’s entrance.  In previous years, the park was home to the Schwarzkopf City Jet Frozen we’d just ridden at Attrapark, but today there remains just the Big Apple Brucomela.

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Sokolniki Park was one of the livelier parks we visited that day, which, for a sunny, warm Saturday in July in a country whose winters are the reason why vodka is a perfectly acceptable food group, was to be expected.

 

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Like many of Moscow’s municipal parks, it is approximately the size of a small country.

“Sokol” is the Russian word for falcon; consequently, the name of the park is traced to its use as a falcon hunting ground during the 17th century.

 

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It was a pretty place.  I liked the planters dividing the walking and biking paths.  Definitely a nicer look than mangled, dead birds falling out of the sky in earlier years, I’m sure.

 

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There are two ways to tell you’ve arrived at the rides area.  One is this entrance.

The other is a queue of women in bladder-filled agony.  In the women’s bathroom across the road, there were six toilets.  Five were cordoned off with red and white striped tape.  There was a line of about 25 women (not exaggerating) in there, all waiting to use ONE toilet (BTW, Sokolniki, that is completely inexcusable).  I’ve observed over the years that most women, for reasons beyond my comprehension, require about two to four minutes to pee (seriously, women of the world, what the hell is taking so long in there?  Unzip, pee, wipe, zip, done.  This should take no longer than 60 seconds at the absolute, absolute most!).  Two minutes times 25 women equals lots of what we called in elementary school “emergencies.”

 

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Where was I?  Oh right, so apparently a Zamperla Air Race has made it to Russia.

 

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And also the OMGITSSOADORABLEICOULDPEEMYSELFWHICHIWILLANYWAYBECAUSETHEBATHROOMLINEISSOLONG tiniest Rockin’ Tug in the world.

 

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But this is why we’re here, of course.

 

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The most memorable thing about this is that the railings look like baseballs.  Also, it took forever to get this shot without someone standing in the way.

 

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But really, standard Wacky Worm fare here.

Ours was a full train, which meant that not everyone in our group of five made it on.  Well, four of us did.  Then we all walked around taking photos while stealing glances back and giggling about how much taller Martin was than everybody else in the train.

 

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I really should have taken a photo of that.  For some reason I didn’t, so here are the park’s swings instead.

 

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Also their very colorful Ferris wheel…

 

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…this Zamperla creation, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before…

 

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…and the Zamperla version of a looper.

 

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Zamperlaland was a nice little park really, but it could have used some shade.  It was hot out.

 

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I wanted to go get me a cold pop.

 

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Then I thought somebody was barbequing.  I said, “Oh Lord Jesus, it’s a fire!”

Okay, fine, so I could have just said “Oh haha look here’s a Disko that looks like it’s on fire lolz” but I decided everyone could use a little bit of Sweet Brown in their life.  Everybody got time for that.

(Actually, somebody was really barbequing.)

 

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Isn’t that right, completely licensed Ice Age height checking character?

We left the funfair after that.  Martin wanted to walk down to the area where Frozen used to stand to see if there was a new coaster that had slipped under the radar, but we found only a concert stage.

 

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We also passed this ropes course.  I’m telling you, these city parks have everything.   Much like a child, I still love climbing all over things and this ropes course looked really fun, not to mention I love how it utilizes its natural setting.

But also much like a child, I had only eaten rolls and dry Cocoa Puffs at breakfast that morning because everything else available looked gross.

 

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Basically, by this point my stomach was this.

 

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Luckily, this was across the street from the park.

Let’s take a second and talk about Russian McDonald’s.  It is A Big Thing here.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that we walked in and nearly walked right back out because there had to have been 60-70 customers standing by the counters and nearly all tables (which occupied two floors plus an outside patio) were filled.  In the U.S., this would mean you might get some of your food about 42 hours after placing your order, but chances are the order wouldn’t be correct and anyway, they’d still be waiting on fries.

In Russia, things are a little different.  There were probably eight or nine registers open and even with us non-Russian speakers going through the point and nod dance of the picture menu…

 

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…it took less than ten minutes to get our food.  The child in me was very happy :)

 

Attrapark Izmaylovski

We originally believed Attrapark the Second was called Luna Park, but upon arrival we quickly learned otherwise.  This particular funfair is one of two located within Izmaylovski Park, an absolutely massive municipal park located northeast of the city center.  It was much quieter than Sokolniki had been, which, combined with the late afternoon sunlight slanting through an abundance of trees, made for a pleasant few hours (well, it did when I could ignore the gradually increasing throbbing in my heels from walking all day!).

Attrapark is located a short distance from the Izmaylovski Park entrance closest to the Partizanskaya metro station and contains a sizable assortment of attractions given its size.  Its target demographic was a bit wider than our previous stop and indeed, wider than most of the Moscow parks we’d visit, offering some larger thrills in addition to children’s rides.

 

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Welcome to Izmaylovski Park…

 

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…which, again, is huge.  Huge enough, in fact, to hide a dirty bomb.  At least that’s what some Chechen terrorists thought in 1995.

Has it seriously been 18 years since 1995?  Shit.  That makes me feel old.

 

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Not as old as this probably is, though.  Some of Moscow’s public transportation vehicles did look positively ancient, although this one isn’t too bad.

 

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Cross the trolleybus lines and we have arrived at Attrapark…

 

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…where this genteel fellow greeted us.  What’s that sign say?  Can’t read this alphabet, but apparently you want me to see something off to the left, so—

 

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OH DEAR GOD.

 

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So this is how it ends.

 

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This is how it ends.  This.  Right here.

 

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BTW, that sign translated to “Castle of Fear.”  Let’s have a look at these trains.  OTSR and lap bar?  Yep, that’s an accurate sign, all right.

Look, none of us were enthusiastic about this.  It looked like a classic Pinfari death trap from a distance but it quickly became apparent that its dimensions didn’t fit that bill.  We still don’t know who manufactured this.

Sorry, I shouldn’t use “manufacture” in the past tense.  Following the ride before ours, we watched the ride op climb the lift, hammer in hand.  He climbed close to the top and disappeared out of sight from where we stood in the queue.  The sound of metal hitting metal soon resounded.  I so very much wish I had a photo of this, but by this point my camera was safely stowed in the free lockers provided adjacent to the queue.

He descended a few moments later, put his hammer down, and calmly approached the turnstile to take our tickets.

I don’t think I need to tell you what we were all thinking by this point.

 

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“Run away!” hollered the bull, his eyes wide with horror.

 

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“Choose thy fate wisely, like us!” chorused the hanging pandas.

 

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I climbed in, expecting the worst.  I remember being mildly concerned that my arms weren’t long enough to reach the grab bar at the front of the car because it meant that bracing might be difficult.  We ascended the (recently reconstructed) lift, the suspense of the ensuing slow turn to the drop eliciting a stream of expletives from our group.  We dropped, I braced, and my face preemptively winced as we clattered toward the loop.

And it was fine.

It was like one of those moments in a movie where a character is expecting to get punched in the face and foreboding music plays to a lengthy shot of their anxious expression before the camera zooms out to reveal the danger is gone.

This turned out to be a rather agreeable Dragon, its multilayered helices allowing the train to unexpectedly pick up a substantial speed by ground level.  It was—dare I say it—an enjoyable ride.

 

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Gee, you don’t…you don’t think that this may have been the castle of fear, do you? :)

We decided to give this a try and I’m glad we did.  There was a lot of action in there—a good variety of effects and plenty of them, although I think the scariest part was trying to get the point across to a rather gruff ticket lady that I wanted to ride.

 

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Like I mentioned earlier, Attrapark was unusual in that it catered to a slightly older clientele than most Moscow public park funfairs with a selection of larger rides, such as this Calypso…

 

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…and this Trabant.

 

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Even so, there was no shortage of kiddie rides.

After the miracle of escaping the coaster unscathed wore off, we began the army march toward Izmaylovski’s second funfair.

 

 

 

Little Playground

We knew there was another rides area buried somewhere in Izmaylovski Park, so armed with what we hoped was an accurate map, we set off to find it.  It was quite a hike—thirty minutes at least—but it took us down a pleasantly shady, tree-lined path.  Unfortunately, by this point in the day the ache in my heels was starting to migrate up my calves, so it was quite a relief to see Little Playground finally come into view.

 

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On Google Translate, this comes up as “crumb.”

 

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But try and put this map heading in there and it turns into “pipsqueak.”

 

DSCN0250 Little Playground was quite a cute place, actually.

 

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It was clean, well kept, and very colorful.

 

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 They have a lot to offer pipsqueak crumbs.

 

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Not credit whores, though.  At least, not today.

 

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This is Shark Coaster.  Unfortunately, it was closed because all the sharks were in Hollywood that week for the premiere of Sharknado.

 

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That’s legit.  I’m down with that, just like my ass was down on this bench as soon as I was done taking pictures.

It’s always an embuggerance to miss a credit, but the upshot to this one is that we found ourselves across the way from a café.  The thought of retracing our long trek up here seemed about as pleasant as a Ryanair flight, so we opted to sit and rejuvenate for an hour with some drinks before setting out into the unknown.

(No, really, we were about to do just that.  The last park of the day was known only through some keen spotting on Google Maps!)

Kuzminki Park

We had Tal’s eagle eye to thank for this one.  He spotted it on Google Maps a few weeks before the trip, so armed only with possible coordinates and walking directions we hoped were accurate (we didn’t even know the name of the park yet), we emerged from the metro station onto a street lined with apartment buildings to the right and a flea market area to the left.  The park soon appeared a few blocks down, but we knew if the coaster existed, it would be ensconced deep within the grounds.

We kept approaching areas that looked vaguely promising, such as a colorful building that, from a distance, appeared to have ticket windows, but closer inspection revealed merely a place with shuttered windows that had absolutely nothing to do with a funfair.

We kept moving, hoping a ride would appear around every new corner, but instead there were just more trees and my consciousness growing increasingly aware of a steadily strengthening headache throbbing in tandem with my steps.

 

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Right past this sign was a children’s train ride, but again, there was almost nothing to suggest other rides in the immediate vicinity.

That is, until I heard the unmistakable thundering of coaster wheels on track and saw flashes of blue and yellow peeking through the trees ahead.

I have to admit, it was exciting.  I mean, it had that crashing clatter of a Wisdom Orient Express, so we need to look at “exciting” from a relative perspective here, but the point is that here was a coaster that previously existed only as a blurry image on a satellite photograph and we had actually found the thing for real.

 

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The colorful letters here translate as “vegetable garden,” but at the time, I couldn’t read that.  Assuming it referred to the rides, I just zeroed in on the closing time, looked at my watch, realized it was fifteen minutes past, and promptly forgot about the pain in my feet and head as I hustled as fast as I could to the coaster.

 

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Here’s that garden.  It wasn’t closing at 7 and neither was the coaster.

 

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Not that I realized that, so I snapped this photo, ran to the ticket booth, showed it to the woman inside, and held up five fingers.  Shortly after, we thumped into the train out of breath (but not so out of breath we couldn’t surmise amongst ourselves the coaster’s manufacturer, which seemed to be Golden Horse.  Important stuff, you know).

 

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So this is Sputnik and it ran as loudly as the rockets used to launch the real thing.

 

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Rattle, scrape, grind, grate, Sputnik traipsed a rowdy gait.

 

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But for as…shall we say, vociferous…as it was, it was a fun little ride.

 

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There was even a small boost of air entering this helix.

And much like the real Sputnik expedition spurred Americans to critically evaluate its lagging space program, this Sputnik prompted assessment of my own defective social skills.

 

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Just gonna clear my throat, here.

:)

After that came the usual flurry of picture taking.

 

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A few rides for the older kids…

 

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A few for the younger…

 

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And if that’s not good enough, then make your own entertainment.

I noticed chalk drawings and hopscotch games in quite a few of the parks we visited, which was unusual to me.  You just don’t see things like that in amusement parks in the U.S.  Well, maybe you would if these types of parks existed in the U.S.  It made the park’s atmosphere seem much more low key and homey—like you’re playing in your own backyard that just happens to have a roller coaster in it.  I would have loved to have had a place like this nearby when I was a kid.  I mean, I did have roller coasters to fill the gap when not creating sidewalk chalk masterpieces (yeah, right) on summer afternoons, except mine were all in my head and enacted by running around the yard and doing cartwheels when I came to an “inversion.”

 

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I suppose when it came down to it, my roller coasters were about as much a roller coaster as this is.

This is Indianapolis, which I’m sure you could deduce from the taxi car and completely relevant, not to mention politically correct, figurines guarding the entrance.  Unfortunately, it’s powered, which kind of deflated the timing of Richard’s “Now, wouldn’t it be funny if found another coaster here” remark he made just seconds before we both spotted the yellow track, but hey.  Can’t win ‘em all.

 

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But you sure can laugh when goons like these can’t get their “credit” because it’s closed for maintenance :)

 

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Isn’t that right, completely licensed Shrek?

Actually, Tal had this uncanny ability on this trip to find people who could speak English—or at the very least, communicate enough that he understood what they were saying—and sure enough, he somehow managed to flag down a member of park management who spoke English to ask a few questions about the ride.  Turns out it was moved to the site just two months previously but was having some mechanical problems today.  He seemed very willing to stop and answer Tal’s questions.  Nice guy.

 

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Nice park, really.  It’s obvious they take care of the place, right down to the planters on the fence posts and I think a few parks out there could stand to borrow a page from their employee training manual.  I mean, when’s the last time you saw someone this thrilled to take care of your trash, and one wearing a cute little porkpie hat no less, in a Six Flags park?  See, that’s what I thought.

Seriously, this was a great find.

 

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Although to be honest, I was pretty much feeling like this right now thanks that headache I mentioned earlier, which had become a pounding migraine.

 

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This is what it looked like from the inside.

(Look closely.)

Thank goodness this was the last park of the day because in very little time I was reduced to a nauseated, woozy mess.  That was a long trek back to the hotel, let me tell you.

Well, I’m not actually going to tell you because I reckon you don’t care.  Suffice it to say Excedrin retained one happy customer that night before it was lights out to rest up for the Big Apple Extravaganza the next day.

 

 

 

Park Severnoye Tushino

The next morning began by taking the metro all the way to the end of the purple line to the Planernaya stop.  Park Severnoye Tushino is located on the very northwestern outskirts of the city, about a 25 minute walk from the subway through a residential area densely packed with more of those shabby apartment buildings that were quickly becoming the iconic sight with which I’d associate Moscow.

The “Tushino” part of this area’s name derives from the nickname Tusha, which supposedly means “carcass,” of the nobleman who controlled it during the fourteenth century.  That lovely imagery aside, one of the prominent features of its history was that it served as False Dmitry II’s (false because he claimed to be the son of Ivan the Terrible but was really a dirty, rotten liar) temporary settlement during the Time of Troubles as he lay siege to the Kremlin.  (You know, let’s just take a moment and applaud Russia’s no-bullshit approach to recounting history:  ‘Ole Dmitry here is forever immortalized as the faker he was (even though Russia wasn’t too bright at this stage in history because he wasn’t the only one; there was not only a False Dmitry I but also a False Dmitry III.  Like, you’d think Russia would have wised up after the first time or even the second.  But anyway).  Ivan was terrible in the sense that dinosaurs were “terrible lizards”—just doing his thing as tsar unless you happened to get in his way when he was hungry to lash out at someone when his unstable emotional state dictated it, in which case he went ballistic and sometimes killed you.  Also, the times.  Oh, the times!  They were troublesome.  Easy.  Succinct.  Kudos.)

Right, but you don’t care about that.  You want riveting descriptions of Big Apples.

 

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Would you like a Crapdog too before we get started?

 

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Anyway.  Our walk to the park was marked with some spitting rain and it was still relatively early in the day, so I was a little concerned that the rides might not be open yet.

 

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My fears were allayed when I saw this dragon merrily circling away…

 

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…heard Taylor Swift from speakers somewhere near this snack cart singing about her Time of Troubles, which basically consists of every second of her life since she hit puberty and realized boys were princely liars the best thing that’s ever been hers the reason for the teardrops on her guitar made today a fairy tale trouble hey I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling dismayed that she’s only 22 and we have how many more years of this playing on loop on every hit radio station?…

 

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…and hot diggity crapdog, we don’t even have to hunt down a ride operator!

 

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We originally thought this was named Caterpillar.

 

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The more appropriate name might be Expression My Dog Makes If You So Much As Look At Him When He Is Chewing A Rawhide. 

Unless, of course, they’re aiming for something along the lines of Black Sheep, but caterpillar style.  They could call it Caterkillers.  I’d watch that.

 

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Nah, actually, it’s called Loch Ness Monster.

 

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Which you can sort of twig from these drawings.  I mean, you kind of have to suspend reality to accommodate the idea that these dudes seem to be rushing to the loch to attack the multitude of dinosaurs peacefully eating there whose expressions clearly indicate they don’t give two fucks about this political situation because ummmm hello, they are frigging dinosaurs.

 

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Even though the ride was scheduled to run every fifteen minutes (except at 11:45 for some reason) and we’d just missed the most recent ride, they let us onto the train as soon as we had our tickets (also, wouldn’t it have been easier to just say it runs every fifteen minutes starting on the hour?) and commenced to send us around the circuit four times.

 

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Get used to this sight, folks.  There’ll be a lot of this today.

 

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Of course, there are only so many photos of a Big Apple one can take…

 

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…before you start to look around at everyone else…

 

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…and explode into fits of giggles because WE ARE FIVE ADULTS ALL TAKING PICTURES OF THE SAME GODDAMNED CHILDREN’S ROLLER COASTER.  So I decided to take pictures of us five adults all taking pictures of the same goddamned children’s roller coaster, which prompted more of those five adults to take pictures of us five adults all taking pictures of the same goddamned children’s roller coaster and then everything was unreasonably silly.

 

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Thanks for a good time, Nessie, but watch it; that rainbow might get you arrested in this country.

 

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We headed out, snapping pictures as usual along the way of yet another well kept little funfair.

 

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This one even had bumper cars.

Then Richard decided to stop by the bathroom on our way out.  Knowing there would be no guarantee on the timing of available bathrooms on a day like this, I figured I’d make a stop too.

This is where I really wish I had a photo of this.

The bathrooms were set back down a narrow path.  The day was already overcast; walking under the trees rendered it even gloomier.  My arms prickled with goosebumps as the breeze rustled the leaves and a stray raindrop slipped through the foliage.  As I got closer, I heard crows cawing high in the branches.  I stopped.  There were CROWS CAWING.  And I thought to myself, “You know Megan, this is really not shaping up well for you.”  But I continued anyway, only to halt in my tracks when I saw the swarm of flies in the doorway.  Still, I tiptoed a little further, pondering the increasingly cartoonish absurdity of this situation and made it as far as the entrance threshold before a smell that rivaled even Chinese Bathroom Smell wedged a full-on assault of my olfactory senses.

Right, dehydration for the day it is, then.

Victory Park, take 1

The weather so far that morning had been cooler with a few raindrops here and there, enough so that I had been concerned during the walk to Park Severnoye Tushino that I’d neglected to bring a jacket.  The long walk had sufficiently warmed me up though, so I hardly gave the weather a thought during the metro ride back into the city—all of which was, of course, underground.

You could say my heart sank when we emerged and I saw the soaked steps leading out of the station.  A symphony of shoe soles squeaked on slick stone as the umbrellas of those with more foresight than I bobbed overhead.

I sighed.

What else was there to do but hug my exposed arms in to my sides and trudge up the stairs toward credits that were most assuredly, most definitely, without a doubt, 100% completely closed?

 

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Moscow metro stations have various entrance and exit points.  Nine times out of ten, we chose the wrong exit, finding ourselves on the wrong side of some twelve lane highway (twelve being, of course, the minimum number of lanes required for all roads in the Moscow metropolitan area).  Fortunately, Victory Park is located adjacent to the station, which meant we had this handy sign to eliminate the guesswork that invariably ended in one of us cursing the fact that we had to double back.

 

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Unfortunately, this.

Victory Park was established in the 1960s as an outdoor museum to commemorate the 1812 Russian triumph over Napoleon.  The photo above is of the Square of Victors; the tall, pointy object is an obelisk topped by Nike, the Greek goddess of victory and behind it is an indoor museum dedicated to Russia’s involvement in World War II.

But who cares about history lessons of war and triumph and valor and sacrifice?  There was a Big Apple nearby!

 

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Knowing there was no way any rides would be operating in the present conditions, we tried to keep under the trees to minimize exposure to the rain.  Obviously, this led to the shenanigans one can expect from five adults with the collective sense of humor of a 12 year old.

The rain got heavier and we eventually had to seek out the awning of a nearby snack cart for cover.  As the minutes passed with no sign of it letting up, it was hard not to feel a little discouraged, bored and hungry.

 

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Isn’t that right, completely licensed Shre…wait.

Twenty five or so minutes later, holding the most freezer burnt ice cream cone I have ever had the displeasure to call lunch, we made a go of it with the rain now only a sporadic drizzle.

 

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The amusement area is at the bottom of a hill.  It wasn’t difficult to find, but it didn’t take long to see this had “no chance in hell” written all over it.

 

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Yeah, don’t think so.

 

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Definitely don’t think so.

 

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It was while photographing the Big Apple that Tal and George noticed a security guard nearby the Dodgems and waved him over.  I stood back and watched their exchange.  I couldn’t hear a word, but I do know what the universal facial expression is for “fuck off.”

I was starting to form the impression that this place might be SBNO, but before we could get a better look, we hastened toward the shelter of the trees as the rain started again.  The next fifteen minutes were spent debating this, wondering if that security guard was about to teach us lessons of war and triumph and valor and sacrifice of his own, and the pros and cons of making a run through the rain to the metro station since we weren’t getting any drier standing where we were.

 

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If I say I felt victorious as I rushed through the metro entrance (because that’s what this is; figured I’d clarify since I’m sure you were confused as to why it seemed there was suddenly a photo of an art museum in here) and felt the heat of the trains smooth away my goosebumps, does that still count as partaking in the Victory Park experience?

 

Kolomenskoye Park

It was a long metro ride to our next park, during which I blocked from my mind the thought of another session standing in the rain next to closed rides.

Moscow is a large city, but I didn’t realize just how large until the train emerged briefly from underground and I found myself squinting from the sunlight streaming through the windows.  Only a few cloud puffs marred an otherwise brilliant blue sky.  I couldn’t help but smile and wonder if maybe we’d hit Victory Park just when the coaster gods were on their lunch break.

It took some sleuthing to find the funfair.  Admittedly, we walked for a long time around the fenced perimeter of Kolomenskoye Park, somehow completely missing the entrance closest to the rides.  Our walk took us through a flea market that was largely deserted by this time of day, although the smell of fresh fruits from some of the still open stalls was making my mouth water—which is how I knew I was very hungry, because the sum total of fruits I like is orange juice.  Eventually, I don’t even think we walked through an actual gate into the park, but rather saw a section of fence missing and ducked in, finding ourselves in an area consisting mainly of unshaded walking paths.  With no idea where to turn, we walked over to this map, expecting to figure it out via pictures and guesswork like we had in previous parks…

 

DSCN0395Except by golly, this map had English translations!

Once the site of a royal estate, Kolomenskoye Park is now part typical city park and part cultural site.  It includes various buildings, such as museums and what I believe are original 16th and 17th century forts and churches.

 

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This is also an original, maybe give or take a few centuries.

 

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Hmmm.  I see not many people are interested in paying homage to this supremely important cultural piece today.

 

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That’s where cool cats like us come into play.  Those kids riding with us?  Yeah, wasn’t happening until they saw us and aspired to emulate our highly sophisticated, culturally refined and socially adept personas.

 

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And our excitement was contagious, of course!

 

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I told you, get used to this view.  Actually, that drop had some pep to it, which is to say that there was, in fact, the tiniest bit of ass lift.  Tiniest.

But otherwise Dragon Roller Coaster was…well, a standard Big Apple.  Except that it’s in Russia.

 

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You know how they don’t mess around with verbose terms in their historical accounts?  Yeah, they don’t bullshit with whacked out worms, either.  It goes straight from demonic, child-eating dragon to Pax here.

In Soviet Russia, coaster ride you.

 

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And from the look of it, chess play you, too.

 

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Kolomenskoye’s attractions were laid out in a straight line and ranged from things as simple as seesaws…

 

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…to larger rides such as swings and bumper boats.  Down the way there was a pirate ship and bumper cars.

 

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Not a bad looking place by any stretch, just not very lively today.

Not that we were there very long, either.  We pretty much just did a hit and run, after which I played a rousing round of “Find the toilet with the least amount of ‘seat decorations’”, a game that was fast becoming an entertainment staple in this country.  We were toying with the idea of hitting up Victory Park again, so we wanted to get moving order to tick off our last known Moscow credit before doing so.

 

Luna Park Happyland

Luna Park Happyland is another small collection of children’s rides found within a small park in the Maryino municipal district, which is located southeast of the city by the river.  Supposedly this is one of the most populated parts of Moscow, although the walk from the metro station to the park was through a largely quiet commercial area (well, it was quiet once we got past the McDonald’s.  McDonald’s, whose unmistakable aroma made my nose bleed temptation and my stomach clench in angry growls the second we got off the subway.  McDonald’s, whose “white meat” chicken nuggets were going to be my only source of protein while in Moscow.  McDonald’s, whose…guys, do we like seriously really need this credit?)

 

DSCN0464“Yes, oh yes you do!” called the cross-eyed monsters.  Well, okay then.  If you say so.

 

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Luna Park Happyland was probably the most rural looking of Moscow’s city parks.  Its dirt pathways certainly lent that impression, along with abundant trees and thousands of tiny, white wildflowers in the grass.

 

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That is, of course, until you looked up to see those ever ubiquitous Soviet era apartment complexes lining the surrounding streets.

 

DSCN0470As usual, I took a few of the requisite “here are things besides the roller coaster” photos, like this flat ride of junked up critters twirling around a sentient stone tower that’s really a clown wearing a Christmas light roof hat with a big ass blue bird nesting on top of it.  Because.

 

DSCN0471I soon wandered over to Gusenitsa to photograph it and wait for the others.

 

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It was during this time that a ride operator approached and asked via a combination of Russian, broken English, gestures and incessant smiling if I wanted to ride.  I nodded and did my best to convey that I was waiting for other people and a ticket.

He smiled as this went back and forth a few times.  I didn’t know if I was getting the message across.  It didn’t matter.

Some languages are universal.

 

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He was feeling the love tonight.

 

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And my, isn’t that kiddie flume interesting!  And those Pepsi umbrellas!  WOW, THAT BENCH IS RIGHT UNDER THE TREE; CAN YOU BELIEVE IT!  Richard and Tal and George and Martin and anyone, where the fuck ARE YOU?!?!?

A thousand years later, Martin appeared with tickets.

 

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This train seemed so friendly and cute compared to today’s earlier versions.  Then the ride op made sure to fasten my seat belt, completely ignoring whether or not anyone else wore theirs.  Suddenly, being dragon chow didn’t seem like such a bad option.

 

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(Tired of this yet?  No?  Good.  There will be more.)

This coaster was good.  At least, that’s what I told the ride op afterwards when he asked me and no one else.

Credit obtained, we proceeded to haul out of there.  Apparently George had been told that photographing wasn’t allowed and we wanted to leave in case anyone gave us a hard time about the photos we’d taken before we knew about this.  Personally, I was ready to get away from Ride Op the Horny.

On the walk back to the metro, we confirmed that we would, in fact, make another go at Victory Park.

I was winning even before we got there.  We ate at the McDonald’s we’d passed earlier :)

 

Victory Park, take 2

This time, we emerged from the metro to see the monuments adorning the Square of Victors tinged with gold as the evening sun dropped westward.  The breeze was warm, my tummy was full and the spring in my step was not due to trying to outrun goosebumps.  There was hope.  Oh, there was hope!

 

DSCN0493It was dashed.

 

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It was dashed quickly.

 

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It became evident that this place had not run in a very long time.  The pavement was overgrown…

 

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Most entrances were fenced off…

 

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The Tilt A Whirl was not only covered and chained off, but also had tape around its perimeter further demarcating its status…

 

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Even the trampolines were removed from their poles.

 

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Shame.

Ah well.  This certainly wasn’t an ideal situation, but I have to admit it was less vexing to know this was SBNO than to unknowingly visit an operational park on a day it was closed.

 

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I walked a little slower back up the hill, taking in some sights I hadn’t fully enjoyed earlier like the gold domed St. George’s church, which looked magnificent in the evening light.

 

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Across the street from the park is the third reincarnation of the Triumphal Arch.  The original stood in a different location and was fabricated of wood in 1814 to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon.  Now it sits, choked within twelve lanes of traffic.  Fitting way to mark victory over a guy who was concerned with his size, I suppose.

I’d say Victory Park is worth a stop if Russian military history and freezer burnt ice cream are your thing.

They’re not my thing.  But it is a visually impressive place.

A few more photos and it was back on the subway for our last stop of the night, Gorky Park.

 

Gorky Park

As far as we could tell, there were no roller coasters remaining at Gorky Park.  Previously, it was home to quite a few credits; RCDB lists nine now defunct coasters, including what was once the largest portable coaster in the world, the inverted Eurostar.  Our reason for visiting was twofold; first, we figured it warranted at least a cursory look to see if anything had slipped under the radar and secondly, it is, hands down, the most impressive municipal park in Moscow.

Mammoth, colossal, enormous—those words only begin to describe it.  To give you an idea, Richard and I finally gave up our search for coasters when we saw a sign indicating that a certain landmark was 10 kilometers away.  TEN KILOMETERS.  To be fair, I am pretty sure the Gorky name applies only to one part of the large plot that is the park—the map we viewed seemed to list different named areas, of which Gorky was one—but even that was huge.

All told, we spent nearly two hours here.  No, there weren’t any coasters, but that hardly mattered.  Go here.  If you ever go to Moscow, go here.

 

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Through these completely non-overstated entrance gates…

 

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…is a continent called Gorky Park.

 

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Martin informed us that some of the coasters were located in this spot.  Supposedly the park underwent a major transformation in 2011 that saw the removal of the rides in favor of creating a greener recreational space.

 

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I’d say they have the greener part down pat.

 

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Also, the humorous hot dog stands quota has been reached.

 

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Today, this area is a lovely long promenade on the river that was bustling with walkers and cyclists.

 

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And a space shuttle.  Because why not.

 

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This was actually a mock-up unit from the Buran space shuttle program.  Unfortunately, you can’t go inside of it.  Apparently it better functions as a really good place from which to rent bikes, which comes as no surprise.  I mean, “bike rental” and “space shuttle” always go hand in hand in my book.

By this time George, Martin and Tal had decided to park themselves at an outdoor café for a drink.  Richard and I decided to venture on in the off chance we’d find a credit.  We didn’t realize at the time just how large this park was.  Naïvely thinking we could do a quick reconnaissance, we set off.  We didn’t see the others for the rest of the night.

 

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We passed what appeared to be a rather popular outdoor concert before coming upon a lake with paddleboats.  I read later that in winter, the walking paths flood and freeze, essentially creating a gargantuan network of ice skating trails.  This sounds like something out of one of my wildest childhood fantasy worlds.  I can just imagine the joy I’d find in creating my own little universe where I could glide from place to place like a fairy princess.

Except I can’t skate.  I’d probably pretend to play the part of the hag releasing evil unto the world, but in actuality I’d just hide in some little dark burrow where the other kids couldn’t laugh at me.

 

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Well, what do you know.

 

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Needless to say, our eyes widened when we saw this.  It would have been easy to miss.  If Gorky Park was Europe, then this funfair was a living room in Liechtenstein.

My hopes weren’t high, but was it possible a credit had managed to worm its way into here without anyone noticing?  Were we about to make a discovery that would garner the disgust of those losers who’d hotfooted it to the bar?  Would it be a Big Apple?  How about a Pinfari?  Does anyone else think of the word “dorky” when they hear this park’s name and giggle a little bit because they think of that one and only factoid they retained from a book of useless information that stated “dork” is the term for a whale’s penis?

Actually, it’s an urban legend popularized by the Internet.  It’s slang for penis, sure—some suggest it could be derived from the word “dick”—but it’s not a technical term for a whale’s junk.

The More You Know!

 

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What?  Oh, no, there wasn’t a credit there.

 

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But there was a carousel.

Four countries and two time zones away from that was a pedestrian bridge.  Underneath it was a salsa dancing lesson because…because, so after weaving through that, we made our way up to see how far we still had to go to reach the end of the park to confirm there really wasn’t anything there.

 

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Unfortunately, we would have had to walk to Vladivostok to figure that one out.

 

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Instead, we turned around to admire the aerial view of what we had covered until we realized we had to retrace it. 

In all seriousness, I could barely feel my legs at this point.  It had been another long day of walking.  A little pain in my heels is fine, but this was an ache all the way up my thighs.

 

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So we did something unconventional for us:  we sat on a bench.  We sat on a bench and held hands like normal couples do.  We people watched and I noticed that in Russia, most women opt for three inch heels when they visit outdoor recreational areas.  A-ha!  That was why my legs hurt.  My sneakers weren’t practical enough footwear.   How silly of me!

We didn’t linger long because as far as we knew, the others were still waiting for us.  I could have stayed on that bench for hours feeling the burning relief seething up my calves that comes with finally sitting after walking all day, but alas, we knew we should get a move on.  We did make a stop at a bathroom on the way (Sokolniki Park Syndrome here; about 30 toilets, all but 6 cordoned off and did I mention what a luxurious job it is to clean public bathrooms in Moscow?  I’d love to get paid for doing absolutely nothing) before heading towards the bar, only to find those goobers had deserted us.

We realized we’d have to navigate the non-English friendly subway system by ourselves.  I quickly learned that the secret to succeeding at this for non-Russian speakers is a camera and some crude, yet vital, reminders:  “Look for the station with the backwards R” or “It’s the station with the lowercase B and the number 3 in the middle.”  Look, it worked, okay?

 

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Dork does not refer to a whale’s penis.  Orange juice, on the other hand…

 

Moscow Culture

St. Basil’s Cathedral/Red Square/Kremlin 

I would be remiss if I did not include the compulsory culture stops one makes when in Moscow.  That, and I’m an anthropology nerd and I enjoy stuff like this anyway, so it hardly feels like an obligatory chore.  Admittedly, Russian history is not my thing.  It’s not because I don’t find it interesting, but rather because my European history class touched on it only briefly (but long enough that I can guarantee you that my entire class remembers the myth of Catherine the Great dying while enjoying some “quality time” with a horse).  No, the teacher of that class found it far more important to spend time recounting the tale of his son’s crowning achievement of drinking tequila with a worm in the bottle and he had the photos to prove it (this is how America runs its Advanced Placement courses, everybody).

Nevertheless, I was excited to see this stuff.  We had visited on Friday evening for a photo session but decided to allot our Monday morning to further exploring the area before catching a train to Saint Petersburg.

 

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As Monday was our last day in Moscow, this unfortunately meant the last morning waking up to this bucolic scene behind the Holiday Inn.

 

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Through these gates, our adventure today begins in the Red Square.

The Red Square is located smack dab in the center of Moscow and has thus long been a hub of all sorts for the city.  Many roads radiate outward from it like spokes on a wheel, which once made it a primary marketplace site.  It’s situated next to the Kremlin and has been the stage of countless political and military events for centuries.  You could even corroborate that Shakira’s hips, in fact, do not lie if you attended her concert there a few years back.

 

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Lenin’s mausoleum is there, so if you’re into having pictures of yourself next to buildings with a dead guy in them like these women in the photo, you’re in luck.

 

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I mean seriously, look at the girl sporting that super smug look.  What is that supposed to mean?  “‘Holla bitches, I’m standing in front of a dead dude’s tomb!  Jealous?”

 

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No, fool, because this is what drew me here the most.

 

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I mean, really.  Look at it.  It’s like Sherwin Williams was having a blow out sale and the painters were all like “Let’s Lisa Frank the shit outta this building.”

Incidentally, St. Basil’s Cathedral has a bit to do with the naming of the square.  Contrary to popular belief, “red” has nothing to do with communism in this case.  The Russian words for “red” and “beautiful” are very similar.  Now, I’m not sure why this rainbow colored building was considered beautiful given this country’s disturbing fascination with homophobia, but ignorance like that often breeds hypocrisy and double standards so…you know, I’ll just get angry that idiots like that actually exist in modern society if I ponder that matter any longer, so let’s move on.

 

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It is beautiful.  When I was a child and first saw a picture of it, I thought it was a castle.

 

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A castle of fakers, some terrible dude named Ivan, completely licensed Anastasias, troublesome times, a dash of bestiality and with a clean toilet nowhere to be found, but a castle nonetheless.  

 

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So it’s actually a cathedral.  Which I may not have realized until someone on this trip said, “We’re going to St. Basil’s Cathedral.”

“Sure,” I replied. “What’s that?”

“Um…that famous building at the end of the Red Square.”

“Oh wait, you mean the rainbow castle?”

 

Like I said, Russian history isn’t my specialty.

 

I later learned that the cathedral was built in the 1500s to commemorate Ivan the Terrible’s military conquests.  Apparently he had this thing where he had to have a wooden memorial church built after every victory.  Eventually he had a small nation state of wooden churches on his hands, so he decided to consolidate and order construction of a stone cathedral.  Legend has it he blinded the architects after it was finished so they wouldn’t be able to replicate it anywhere else.  Humble guy, he was.

 

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The interior is equally modest.

 

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The real name of the building is the Cathedral of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God.  Saint Basil actually refers to Saint Vasily the Blessed, who was buried where the cathedral stands today.  This is his reliquary.  Protecting veils were not Saint Vasily’s thing.  Instead, he preferred to walk the streets naked offering miracles.  Where I come from, this would get someone arrested.  In Russia, it confers sainthood and probably frostbite in areas where the verb “bite” generally has unfavorable associations.

 

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Originally, the building consisted of eight churches surrounding a central ninth.  Later, a tenth was built over Saint Vasily’s grave.  The exterior visual effect was intended to allegorize Jerusalem.

 

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The interior decoration rivals wallpaper from the 1960s.

 

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Flower power, man.

 

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Over the years there have been numerous restoration projects.  One of the most recent efforts was to repaint the walls to look like bricks.  Apparently masonry was as big a deal in Russia when this thing was built as it was for the third little pig and when certain locations prohibited exposing the brick face, the walls were simply painted to mimic brick.

 

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This means those iconic colorful domes are as impressive inside as they are outside.  This also explains why St. Basil’s has never been victim of a wolf assault.

 

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Huffing and puffing ain’t gonna blow these flowers down, oh no.  Not by the hair of their chinny chin…er, petals…uh…wait…ah!  Not by the stamens in their petty-petty-petals!

Seriously, it was really awesome to visit what is, for me at least, the most recognizable building in Russia and to finally learn the significance behind it.

 

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Of course, what lies behind these walls is pretty famous, too.

When I think of the Kremlin, I don’t think of government, at least not in the traditional sense.  I do think of, politics, sure—if, of course, we’re talking the hijinks that result between apes and their crocodilian adversaries.

 

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“Kremlin” means fortress.  This looks pretty fortressey.  Fortressey like King K. Rool’s Keep.  I wonder if I’ll see the Flying Krock if I look up?

 

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It’s located right next to the Moskva River.  Those wishing to enjoy that scenic route can turn here.

 

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Otherwise, pay attention so as not to miss the turn because there are only seven turning lanes.

 

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I’ve already said that Russian history is not my strongest subject, so no, I knew next to nothing about this place.

 

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Here is what I learned:  There are lots of cathedrals.

 

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Lots

 

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of

 

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cathedrals.

 

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Aw, hell.  Alright, where is that Baron K. Roolstein?  Are there any barrels nearby?  Shit, I hope my hair long enough to pull a helicopter spin.

 

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Also towers.  Lots of towers.  The souvenir map I have lists 41 places and 21 of them are towers.  This is the part where I put in a comment about the relationship between phallic structures and inadequacies.

 

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This is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower.  Supposedly it marks the exact center of Moscow.

 

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Immediately adjacent to that exact center was the first kremling we encountered, who was unreasonably adamant about visitors staying off this swath of pavement.  Like, dude, we can see the façade of this building is totally fake.  You don’t have to try and distract us from it.  It looks silly enough already without you barking out orders.  What was I saying about inadequacies again?

 

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Uh huh.  That’s what I thought.  It wasn’t enough to have all those towers and cathedrals.  You just had to throw the largest bell in the world in there, too, didn’t you?  Apparently this bad boy has never been rung.  It broke during the casting process, so it sits—complete with broken piece (which is on the opposite side from where this photo was taken and of which I have photos, except all of them have this one girl in them who WOULD NOT FREAKING STOP CLIMBING ALL OVER THE DAMN THING for a good ten minutes, so she will be forever immortalized in countless tourists’ photographs)—outside the bell tower.

 

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At least those countless tourists and I have the satisfaction of knowing she will one day regret her fashion choices.  We’ll see if that smug smile is there in ten years.

 

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ExtenZe, I believe I’ve found a prime market for you.

 

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We eventually sought escape from the crowds on a bench in the gardens on the grounds.  It was nice to sit for a few minutes (my legs weren’t completely recovered from the previous two days’ excursions), admire the flowers and wonder to myself if the original Kremlin inhabitants imagined that one day, their grandiose governmental compound would be home to a Baskin Robbins cart.

 

Honestly, I wasn’t all that enthralled with this place.  Maybe if we’d gone into some of the museums on the site, I would have felt more immersed in its history and thus found it more engaging, but there wasn’t time for that.  To me, the Kremlin was just a bragging fest of bigness.  Maybe I would have respected it more if the Russian government was proving it cared about protecting basic human rights.  Sure, every country has the right to make laws.  It’s just that when these are laws designed solely to oppress and hurt countless innocent people (in this case, the LGBT community), especially at a time when the country is about to receive unprecedented, effortless publicity come winter, I find it difficult to admire a place synonymous with such a government because it is a reflection of utterly profound ignorance and archaic, unfounded cowardice.

 

Divo Ostrov

After sightseeing, we went back to the hotel for a non-Russian lunch (you want to know how hungry I was by this point?  I don’t really care for bacon, and I ordered penne carbonara.  I ate the whole thing).  Then it was off to the train station for the journey north to Saint Petersburg.  We took a high speed train, which was quite a comfortable way to go.  I was actually really looking forward to this part of the trip, thinking it’d be an opportunity to enjoy the rural scenery of this country, especially after Moscow’s grayness.

What greeted my eyes was a fence.

The train ride lasted four hours.  This same fence continued unbroken almost the entire time.

This probably seems like an insignificant observation, but think about that.  That’s roughly 450 miles of the same fence.  It wasn’t even a nice fence.  It was made of metal, bent into some diamond pattern and painted green and yellow except for the parts where rust relentlessly chipped away the color with its dark brown coarseness.  Four hundred miles of that plus a thick bank of evergreens that lined the track on both sides for most of the way meant that it wasn’t long before I dozed off.

We stepped off the train in Saint Petersburg to the kind of pomp and circumstance that can only be achieved with blasted out speakers in a country rich in stoic nationalism and military tradition.  Our steps were perhaps a little too lively for the somber chorus and fiercely proud orchestral recording unabashedly bellowing around us, but there were credits at stake.

We had a little over 24 hours in Saint Petersburg.  In the interest of maximizing time, we’d decided to hit our first park that night instead of the following day, as originally intended.  We were tired and we’d be lucky to get even an hour and a half there at best, which for a popular park with three credits on a beautiful evening was pushing it, but we decided to go for it anyway.  This, of course, meant that it took the better part of a decade to process our passports upon hotel check-in and the metro station decided to play hide and seek with us, but eventually we found ourselves at the entrance to Divo Ostrov.

A brief note here—the photos in this post are a mix of those taken that evening and those taken when we returned for a photo session the following afternoon; hence, the amount of daylight will vary.  Or maybe they were all taken in one evening because this was Saint Petersburg in the summer, which means the sun is a near constant presence.  Whatever.  Believe what you wanna believe.

 

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Now that’s a pretty font for the park’s logo.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that one before; have you?

 

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Hmmmm.  I’ve also never seen that before.

Actually, that is a much nicer, more civilized way of stating my thoughts at the time I first laid my eyes on this.  I first saw the long, horizontal maroon arm jutting high over the trees as we walked in.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  It was puzzling—I mean, by this point in the game I’ve experienced a lot of flat rides and can typically name their manufacturer upon just a cursory glance because I read coaster sites for fun and not Cosmopolitan like other girls my age (I’ll take plum colored B&M track sightings over plum colored nail polish, thank you, oh and speaking of which Banshee OMG I think I am in love), but here was something that I couldn’t even tell was a ride at all.  I mean, its color and stature obviously signify that it was meant to be attention grabbing, but it’s so tall and what rides out there are actually that tall and maybe this is a work in progress?  Like maybe it’s a

 

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WHAT.

 

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There’s a rocket.  There’s a rocket attached by strings.  There are people in that rocket.  It’s rotating around the tower and that is so high up andOMFGIT’SNOWINVERTINGANDOHSWEETJESUSWHATISTHISTHINGIWANTTORIDETHISROCKETNOW and no, that’s not what you think it means; I don’t read Cosmopolitan, remember?

 

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Ladies and gentlemen…oh, who am I kidding.  Gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Funtime Rocket.  This is one of only a tiny handful in the world.

But that’s all I’m gonna tell you because this place closes in an hour and we have three credits to get.  You’ll just have to stick it out through them like I did, stealing glances over your shoulder every few minutes and hoping there’d be enough time to ride it.

 

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Obviously, this completely, utterly, pointless, profoundly stupid piece of shit by S&S takes precedence.

 

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Look, S&S, I like you.  You’ve come up with some really excellent rides in the past.  But this?  What happened?  Did you all sit around at a meeting, fiddling with your phones so that when someone said “Hey guys, why don’t we build a Screaming Squirrel cuz we’re good at beyond vertical drops, but I just don’t think the present models are gimmicky enough.  Why don’t we add trim brakes to the inverted portions and in order to prevent too much in the way of thrills, let’s also slow down the lead-up into the second drop, which, remember, will also have trim brakes so the train hits the final brakes that immediately follow the trim brakes on the second drop at barely a crawl!” you all just went with it so that you could keep Facebooking and playing Bejeweled Blitz?

 

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I can just see it now:

“Also, guys, let’s not make those trains too comfortable.  Wouldn’t want to make all those long, dull seconds of hangtime any less excruciating on the shoulders than they have to be!”

“Uh huh, sure…omg, Vanessa and Drew finally went FBO, guys!”

 

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I don’t know what I find more offensive:  That this ride even exists in the first place or that Divo Ostrov would be one of the few parks in this world gullible enough to buy one.

 

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Moving swiftly along.  Here was another ride I hadn’t seen before—it was similar to a Zamperla Hawk, except that individual seats freely inverted.

 

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This, too—three sling shot rides, and all three were operating.  Hey, other parks of the world who can’t even run all sides of their drop towers despite hour long queues!  How about that?  (Okay, fine, so none of them were operating in this photo.  This was taken after a huge rainstorm.  Trust me, they had all three going the night before and they needed it, given the queue).

I never got to ride either.

 

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This bad boy was whistling my name.

 

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It was moved here from Kure Portopialand in 2004.  Unfortunately, its name did not survive the move, so what was once Andalusia Railroad is now the uproariously unimaginative Big Roller Coaster.  But I was confident.  Whatever its name lacked in character would surely be made up by a coaster whose trains rushed along the track with a whirr that crisply cut through the evening air, a whirr whose shrillness shrieked of power, force and all the other things synonymous with the great Herr Achterbahn.

 

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It was going to be good.  I could feel it.  I could feel it like I could have reached out to feel this track because this is not America and people don’t need high chainlink fences splattered with signs to warn them of the obvious.

 

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(No airgates in there, either.)

 

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Thank goodness for this Southern pride here; I was starting to feel a little concerned that apparently I was supposed to rely on my own common sense in this country.  Nothing like some guns and a Confederate flag to remind me that I can sue when I refuse to take responsibility for my actions that I consciously made by my own choice.  God bless Amurrrricuh.

 

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So a veterinarian once tried to scare me by saying the giant growth on my dog’s shoulder could cut into his jugular.  I stopped worrying about that after I got a second opinion.  Then I rode this and I thought about it again.

 

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Can someone please explain to me why a roller coaster that doesn’t go upside down has accordion restraints?

 

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Does this track maneuver look like a laterals fest of awesome?  Oh, it sure is!  If, of course, we replace “awesome” with “horrible” and “laterals fest” with “section that attempted very convincingly to induce whiplash and slice my jugular.”

What a shame.  To be honest, though, it wouldn’t have been great even if the restraints were reasonable.  It really is one of those proverbial “bark is worse than its bite” type of rides, in that its mighty whirr tries to shield the fact that it is largely an uninteresting, lackluster experience.  No forces whatsoever, apart from those of pain felt by the nerves in your neck.  The section pictured above and the first drop were particularly unpleasant.

 

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This horse has the right idea:  brace and grit.  Neigh, I shall not be riding again.

 

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Alright, Whirlwind.  This is yours for the taking.  This is like a gymnastics competition where the top competitor has faltered (and the first competitor was disqualified for having the cojones to even call herself a gymnast at all).  The door is wide open.

 

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For our viewers at home, today Whirlwind has selected for its floor exercise music a lovely piece entitled “whierrrwhierrrwhierrrwhierrrKERCHLUNK.”

 

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“Well, Tim, Whirlwind is predictable.  She’s not flashy.  She’s not going to blow you away by her gymnastics.”

 

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“True, Elfi, but what she does have is consistency.  Even if you know hers is not by any stretch the most difficult routine out there, it’s done fairly well.  Sure, difficulty counts, but so does execution.  She might not have the showy acrobatics, but she has clean lines.

“She’s a veteran and confident out there.  You have to remember that in her heyday, this was big gymnastics and her style was, at one point in time, groundbreaking.  The fact that she’s still competing today says something for someone of her age.”

 

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“I’ll give you that, Tim.  And for someone of her age, Whirlwind is still quite the photogenic one.”

 

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“Now, she just has to put this last tumbling pass to her feet…”

 

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The judges have spoken…and holy bumper cars Batman, the Vekoma Whirlwind is the best coaster in the park!

 

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The crowd goes wild.

By that point, it was 10:50.  The park closed at 11.  We’d accomplished our goal credit-wise, but I still had my eye on that Funtime Rocket.  I’d been looking back at it all night and I wanted to ride precisely because it looked fucking terrifying.  I’m 99.9% sure the others had had it and were ready to go, but either I make really good puppy dog eyes or my curiosity was contagious because Richard and Tal decided to go for it with me.  We bought our tickets, hoping they wouldn’t close the line at exactly 11—given the ride’s mere ten-person capacity, there were still at least five or six rides ahead of ours.  They didn’t and I am so thankful because a thunderstorm dampened (literally) any hope of it opening the following day during the hour when we came back for photos.

 

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We stood in line, craning our necks to watch it in action.  Every time the rocket rose, three red rings at its rear would illuminate and flash as it began to slowly rotate around the tower.  It gained height and speed before beginning the inversion series, which was accompanied by a chorus of screams each cycle.  I didn’t blame them.   I couldn’t believe how high off the ground it was and how it just seemed suspended by nearly nothing.

Well, turns out that was true at one stage.

Observe.

And yes, that one was this exact one we were about to ride.

I didn’t know that at the time.  Richard mentioned that such an incident had happened, but he believed at the time it occurred on an installation at a different park.

It didn’t matter.  The seeds of sheer, abject terror had been sown.  Our turn finally came and we somehow managed to get the front row, even though we weren’t first in line.  Richard flippantly mentioned something about the cables directly in front of us (which weren’t the ones that had snapped, so I’m sure those were due any day now and we might as well have a front row seat for it).  Needless to say, it wasn’t what I needed to hear as the rocket began its ascent.

 

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We rose, higher and higher.  The rocket very slowly began its first circuit around the tower, gradually picking up speed.  It wasn’t long before we were at full height and velocity, the trees far, far below.  Most rides were closed by this point and a dusky quiet had settled over the park.

Well, it was quiet at ground level.

Folks, there are flat rides that are fun and then there are those of the Holy Shit variety.

This was the latter.

The wind up there smacked us with gale force.  All other sensory input ceased for a few seconds because nothing else existed except the rushing in my ears.  My knuckles instinctively whitened and a few things gradually began to register.  My teeth were violently chattering.  My skin was a terrain of goose bumps with a forest of hairs standing on end.  My eyes narrowed and dried, the wind ripping moisture from their corners.

I mean, shit.  I was a couple hundred feet in the air, suspended on a tiny little seat that might threaten to blow off this rocket at any second into the black leafy abyss.

Richard was unimpressed.  I mean, sure, rightly so, because obviously this wasn’t a precarious enough situation.

So we tilted.

Sometimes I reach across and hold Richard’s hand on rides.  Not so much here.  I mean, I knew it was coming and I still wrapped my legs around the underside of the seat and gripped even tighter to the restraint’s handles.

The inversions were taken slowly, but it wasn’t so much being completely upside down as the initial tilt into each one that really amplified that unbelievably unsettling sense of vulnerability.  Heights don’t frighten me.  Falling does.  Feeling my whole body tip into that headfirst direction tapped into that innate fear; moreover, doing so from a sideways angle heightened a sense of uncontrollability about the whole thing because I couldn’t see where my head was pointing.  Do all of that amidst the deafening whoosh of the wind in the eerie twilight of midnight in the Russian summer, and it was almost surreal.

The rocket came to a slow stop and we hung in the air for a few moments.  Immediately adjacent, the spokes of the Ferris wheel popped with color every few seconds as the calm and quiet of the slow descent eroded the potency of what had just happened.

It registered as we walked away.  Seriously, that was scary.  Holy shit fuck dandelions, that was scary.  And that made it brilliant.

 

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And you know what?  Sometimes it’s not such a bad thing to lack courage.  Let’s face it.  We tend to become immune to the scare factor after years of partaking in this hobby.  When something like this comes along, I welcome it.  It’s good to feel genuine fear from these things every now and then.  That’s why they’re built, after all.  Well, fear and fun.  This was both.

Then nervousness of a different kind set in because we realized the metros stopped running at 12:30 and it was well past midnight by this point.  We made it, but since ten hours had elapsed since lunch, there still remained the fun of finding some semblance of dinner.

I was more than a little apprehensive when we found an all night buffet serving Russian food nearby our hotel, but I pushed it aside because it was the only thing open and I did the unthinkable:  I tried Russian mystery meatballs.  I mean, I only ate enough to quell the pain in my stomach, but I still did it.  A Funtime Rocket AND Russian mystery meat?  Talk about testing one’s limits.

Semi-satiated, we left the buffet around 12:45.  Even though I was beyond exhausted, I couldn’t help but marvel how there was still light in the sky :)

 

 

 

The Hermitage

“You’re going to Saint Petersburg?  Oh, you HAVE to go to the Hermitage!”

“Ohhhhhh, definitely go to the Hermitage when you’re in Saint Petersburg.  It’s magnificent!”

“We loved the Hermitage.  It’s the best thing to see in Saint Petersburg.  We just absolutely loved it!”

“You’re only spending a day in Saint Petersburg?  But you need at least a day to do the Hermitage!”

Every time someone said something like that before this trip, I nodded.  “Oh, of course,” I said, matter of factly.  “We are definitely going to the Hermitage.”

I had no idea what the Hermitage was.

But it had a funny sounding name, like it should be some kind of industrial unit for hermit crabs and recluses or perhaps a reliquary for herms of Hermes so I could stare at them intently and say, “Herrrrrm.  A fine specimen, that” (and whether I’d be stroking my chin like an old professorial type or the prominently erect genitalia those herms of Hermes are known for is best left to your imagination), so that seemed promising.

Yeah, no.  It’s an art museum.  It’s a very big art museum.  Okay, it’s a gigantic, enormous, grandiose art museum of epic proportions because this is Russia and Texas ain’t got nothin’ on bigness here.  But it’s still an art museum.

Here is a secret.  I dislike museums.  This is sacrilegious coming from a self-professed nerd, I know, but they’re too quiet and too faintly lit to keep my attention for long, no matter how interesting the subject matter (although I haven’t yet been to India’s Museum of Toilets, so perhaps this opinion could change someday).  Unfortunately, art museums rank towards the bottom of my list in terms of attention span.  The best part about art museum field trips in high school (and bloody hell, there were a lot of them, as is bound to happen when one lives close to Philadelphia) was not the destination, but rather getting out of the usual routine of school for the day.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t appreciate art.  I am actually quite fond of Monet.  It’s just that all the paintings start to look the same after a while and the combination of that with the quiet tapping of footsteps through dim, cavernous galleries induces one of those Pavlov reactions where before I know it, my eyelids are drooping.

But as everyone was getting their rocks off to the Hermitage, I was open to seeing what all the fuss was about.  I was even a bit concerned that we only had the space of a morning to see it—and even less time after making a wrong turn on our way there, during which we briefly got our hopes up when we spotted another Happylon sign outside a mall, but it was a false alarm—when everyone said we needed to allot at least a day for it.  At least.

We did it in an hour and half.

 

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Not that I could have anticipated that as we walked towards it.

The Herm-Herm-Hermitage is one of the oldest museums in the world, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 and eventually becoming a public museum in 1852.  All told, there are some three million or so items in its collection; this building is the Winter Palace and is one of six that houses them.

 

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The Winter Palace contains over 1500 rooms and halls.  There are 1786 doors, as the tsars were world renowned Scooby Dooby Doors players back in the day.

 

DSCN0747Hey, marketing director of ExtenZe, I’m going to put you on hold for just a second so I can speak with the CEO of Windex, okay?

Alright, so it’s big.  I began to feel a bit wistful that we’d only planned to devote the morning here.  Had everyone else been right?

 

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Of course they were.  Obviously you need at least a day for this place when you spend half of it waiting in line just to walk through the door.

Seriously, this photo only represents a fraction of the actual line.  I don’t know what on earth would possess people to wait in what had to be at least a two hour line for an art museum.  It’s kind of like those weirdos who wait two hours for a roller coaster.  Whack jobs, all of them.

Luckily for us, we’d pre-purchased tickets online and were able to breeze past all these suckers.  As we did so, I couldn’t help but feel like I should be reaching down to schedule the next ride into my QBot.

(In India, there are Hindu temples that allow you to bypass the twelve-hour long lines of devotees for a small fee.  I find this incredibly amusing.)

So, now that we’ve Flash Passed our way into here, what’s all the fuss about?

 

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A multilingual cacophony echoed throughout the wide entry hall from dozens of tour groups as we stepped inside.  We didn’t escape queues entirely, as we had to withstand the slow shuffle of a slapdash security check.  After that there wasn’t any clear direction on where to go.  There was nothing we could really do except make a gradual zigzag, punctuated by the irritatingly incessant pausing that comes with being confined within throngs of slow walkers, toward the general direction in which they seemed to be heading, which brought us to this staircase.

I was done with this place already.

 

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The first room we came to at the top contained this.  Just this.  A whole room just for this.  Uh huh.  Right.  Moving on.

 

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This room was described as “The Decoration of the Russian Interior in the 19th-20th centuries.”  Yes, because I’m sure everyone had a room like this so they could invite their friends over to sit in a line of hard-backed chairs while one of them strummed a harp.

 

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I’m sure everyone’s ceiling looked like this, too.  What Russian Revolution?

 

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Herrrm, now this looks totally comfortable.  Functional, too.

It was hard to really put my finger on this place.  What was it?  Museum?  Recreated ridiculously opulent residence?  Was there supposed to artwork somewhere?  Was it normal to be less impressed at the gilded ceilings around me than at the outrageously laborious task it must be to remove cobwebs from said ceilings?

 

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Where was the sleazy porno music that should have been playing in this room and wasn’t?

 

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Why are there so many flying saucers in this room?

 

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In all seriousness, how the hell do they get to all the nooks and crannies up there to clean and polish them?  How…oh God, what if there’s a spider up there?  Or worse yet, one of these things?

I couldn’t live here.  It’s far too confusing and potentially terrifying.

 

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And this library is not nearly as awesome as this one.

So yeah, nope.

To be fair, the architecture in here was impressive.  Quite stunning, really.  At least it was for the first half hour.

 

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But how many gilded ceilings can one have?

 

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Now this looks more museum-ey, although I’m a little concerned those chandeliers might not be bright enough.  Remember, I don’t like dimly lit museums.

We next wandered around a set of rooms with literally hundreds of paintings cluttering the walls.  It sort of reminded me of those homes the electric company salivates for every Christmas—light strands everywhere, junky inflatables strewn about the lawn, animated reindeer and trains—basically every inch of available real estate decorated with something just for the sake of decorating it with something.  It was overwhelming.  Some of the paintings in these rooms were so high off the ground that it would have been impossible even for Shaquille O’Neal to admire their detail.

 

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Herm…

 

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You know, herms of Hermes were often made with the head situated atop a rectangular pillar that bore no carvings—except for a set of male genitals at what was deemed an appropriate height because Hermes was associated with fertility.  It was believed that stroking Hermes’s junk brought luck in the baby making department (so if you guessed that I’d be stroking that as I muttered “Hermmm,” you are wrong.  Pffft, how could you think that?  I’m not ready for children yet).  There was gratuitous nudity in the Hermitage in both paintings and sculptures, but no herms like that, at least from what I saw.

 

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So I’ll just use these phallic columns to compensate.

We wandered through a few more rooms but it was obvious without us even saying a word to each other that we were done with the place.

The Hermitage is the most popular tourist site in Russia and on the one hand, I can see why.  It’s massive and holds a lot of stuff.  There are many more areas that we didn’t get to, such as an ancient Egypt area and a section containing prehistoric artifacts.  For someone with more refined interests than weighing the pros and cons of Intamin restraints, it is a must-see.

On the other hand, for someone who is neither a fan of art galleries, nor a huge fan of museums in general, it’s not something I could even remotely consider devoting an entire day to experience.  An hour and a half was more than enough.  My favorite aspect of the museum was the architecture we saw in the beginning, but even that all began to blend together after a while.  I will say I’m glad we went because it abated my curiosity—otherwise I’d still be wondering what the huge deal was, not to mention I’m sure I’d have grown increasingly annoyed at getting chastised for not going (not that I’ll be totally spared given we “only” spent ninety minutes there)—but to me, it’s an art museum no different from other art museums apart from the fact that it just so happens to be rather large.

But to each their own.  I guess it’s no different than going all the way to Saint Petersburg to ride roller coasters that have identical models elsewhere, is it?  It’s not the most illogical thing, I suppose.  I mean, let’s look at shopping.  It amazes me that there are people who get excited to visit outlet malls on vacation.  Can’t you shop at Abercrombie & No Fat Chicks at home?  Furthermore, who considers retail stores a fun vacation destination?  Gee, let me go spend my vacation basking in my own cheap consumerist culture buying shit I don’t need instead of experiencing something new!

Herrrrm, I just don’t get it.

 

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Speaking of shit no one needs…

 

Gagarin Park

When I was in the midst of wondering just how many bottles of Windex it would take to clean all those windows in the Winter Palace, I actually took a second to glance outside one of them.

The sight briefly interrupted my blue-dyed, ammonia tinged musings.

There were a few dark clouds.  As we are all well aware, the things that occur with dark clouds generally don’t bode well for coaster riding.  I kept an eye on things, which wasn’t difficult to do in a place that contains 1945 windows.  The sun and clouds duked it out the rest of the time we wandered through the Hermitage.

In a move that surprised no one, the clouds won literally the second we exited the main gate.

We sprinted to the nearest shelter we could find, which happened to be inside a fast food place specializing in Russian Mystery Items.  Standing and huddled with several other sufficiently dampened pedestrians on the wet, dirty tiles in the doorway, I watched cars splash through puddles and wished the photos on the menu above the counter depicted foods I actually recognized so I could silence my growling tummy (I also wished the asshat who decided that location was a prime place to smoke would be struck down by lightning, but no such luck).  I couldn’t help but wonder what those suckers in that two hour line outside the Hermitage were doing now.

Eventually the bulk of the storm passed.  We set off for Divo Ostrov again for a round of daytime photos (unfortunately, no rides this time since they were only beginning to open following the rain and we had too tight of a schedule, anyway) and then began the trek to the last park of the trip, Gagarin Park.

 

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So we exit the metro station and good, the park is right there.  We see this little arrow map, which seems to imply that it’s just a short walk to the amusements, so good there, too.  We had about an hour before we had to leave for the airport, so it was just as well to not have to walk too far.

 

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Uhhh…well, I’m sure it’s right down here.  It’s gotta be.

This park apparently used to be a brickyard before World War II.  During the war and the siege of Leningrad, the site was used as a crematory.  There was a lot of cremating going on.  The siege of Leningrad was gruesome and pointless.  Thousands were killed and many more were wounded.  Many died of starvation.  There was cannibalism.  And for what?

“A solider will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”  –Napoleon

So this is a thoroughly depressing history.  Shouldn’t there be a credit around here to take my mind off of this?

No?  Not yet?

 

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Right, so it became a park after the war.  At that point, the ground was so pockmarked from the years of constant bombardment that the holes were made into lakes connected by a series of canals like this one.  There were a lot of lakes in this park.  Lots of scenic lakes bordered by flowers and trees and on which a few boaters were enjoying the afternoon, making for a rather picturesque scene.  But this beauty came at what price?

We have been walking for 20 minutes.  Where is this park?  Seriously, if we don’t find it soon, I might launch into an anti-war rant.

 

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“Don’t do it or else you and I both know this trip report won’t get done.”

 

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Deep breath.  Deep breath.  This is the Alley of Heroes, named after the line of busts depicting prominent WWII figures.  I’m inclined to be sympathetic given what happened here because let’s face it, these people were up against a little bitch with a stupid looking mustache sitting on his pedestal ordering genocide, but during a war, nobody’s hands are bloodless.  I’ve never understood that about war.  It’s slaughtering thousands of people and forever wounding so many more emotionally under the guise of “valor” and “glory.”  Killing a bunch of soldiers (or countless civilians, as was the case here), most of whom are innocent as regards the issue that prompted war in the first place, is the most destructive waste of time imaginable.  Yet nationalistic fervor blinds both the instigators and those they send in to do their dirty work into believing that what they are doing is a service to their country.  Few seem capable of distancing themselves from the propaganda that essentially romanticizes murder.  I just don’t get it.

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” –Voltaire

 

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We will return to our regularly scheduled trip report in a moment.  This is the “Megan is using this image to clear her head and yours of controversial political opinions because this is a roller coaster blog and thus a happy place so rainbows and puppies and Sir Stuffington and turtles and now let’s move on” photo.

 

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Okay.  So.  That sign we saw upon exiting the subway?  LIES.  Okay, not really because never once did it specify an exact distance, but I just spent the last twenty minutes walking down a dirt path on a breezy day and now I have dirt in my eyes and in my throat, I am highly contemplative on the futility of an institution so many hold dear and I have to deal with a Russian airport in a couple of hours.  This is distinctly suboptimal.

 

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So let’s go whack some worms to feel better.

 

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Gagarin Park is one of those parks that uses a system where you load a desired amount onto a card and scan it at the entrance to rides.  I went to buy two rides for Gusenitsa.  I pointed to the coaster, which was thankfully right across from the ticket booth so there was no ambiguity as to where I was pointing, and held up two fingers.  The woman inside looked at me oddly and I again held up two fingers, pointed to Richard and myself and then pointed back to the coaster.  She loaded the card, handed me back the change and I walked quickly to the entrance.

Then I repeated this process because she’d loaded only one ride onto the card.

 

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With the card sorted, we tried again.  You remember how in foreign language classes, there’s always a poster on the wall depicting an individual modeling different emotions via outrageously exaggerated facial expressions?  The ride op at Gusenitsa demonstrated “Bewilderment.”

She smiled, half shaking her head and placed her hand, palm down, just past her waist.  For a second I had a wild fear that we were about to be turned down but Richard didn’t skip a beat and smiled right back, saying “No, no it’s alright!  We don’t mind!”

“Bewilderment” was met with “Hopeful.”

 

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But she scanned the card.  Hesitatingly, but she scanned it and then seemed to find great amusement over the situation.  I actually don’t think she was trying to prevent us from riding so much as she was just confused that two grown adults seemed oblivious to the fact that this was a children’s attraction.

 

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Poor girl didn’t know what she was in for.  George and Tal were due to stop by later.

There was still a question to be answered upon exiting.  RCDB had listed two credits here, the other appearing to be a Zyklon/Galaxi/something or other.  Whatever it was, it was of modest size but we hadn’t seen it on approach to the park.

 

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So we started the usual round of photos, a little more rapid fire than usual since our time was limited.  If we found the coaster, great, but we figured it probably wasn’t there since a coaster of that size can’t really hide in a park this small.

 

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I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of these rides seemed to have been built either in-house or by a manufacturer with whom I wasn’t familiar.  The chairswings had that tall, old fashioned look…

 

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Their Frisbee was just a small tub, completely devoid of OTSRs…

 

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And the drop tower was rocking an umbrella hat and looking distinctively less humorous in it than I did when I had to wear one for my second grade show and sing catchy tunes about cumulus clouds and the dew point.

(No, I don’t have any photos of that.)

 

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I know, I know.  We could have all used a good laugh.  Sorry.

 

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There was even a dark ride.  I was trying to decide if we had enough time to ride it when I heard Richard make a noise that indicated either amusement, bemusement, or satisfying flatulence.  Holding my breath, I ran over to see what the deal was.

 

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Oh, look!  He found it.

 

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Cha-NOT-ching.

 

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That would be a wrap, then.  Kacca booth, it’s been real.

We did venture down a dirt path that was behind the park to see if any more pieces of the coaster remained, but getting an answer to that would have necessitated venturing into an area that could have aroused suspicion, so we turned back.

As we began the trek back to the metro, I couldn’t help but notice how the breeze carried just the slightest tinge of crispness with it.  It was a welcome coolness to the heat of Moscow, but it also reminded me a bit of autumn, which on the one hand was a bit depressing because this was July and if it was cool now, then clearly the Russian word for January is the same thing as the Russian word for “fuck you,” and on the other hand, acted like it does when school begins by snapping me out of vacation mode and into serious mode.

This would prove useful because our next destination (after McDonald’s, of course) was the Saint Petersburg airport.  The shuttle bus that took us there shuddered so much at red lights that I became fairly certain that the reason why Russian roads always contain twelve or more lanes is to provide ample detour space around detaching pieces from vehicles such as that one.

It was a prelude of the fun to come.

 

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There are at least five means of conveyance in this photograph that would be superior to flying out of LED.

(Yes, one of them is the stationary coin-op horse.)

 

Russia Conclusion

I read an article a while ago in which the author called PHL a “shame spiral.”  I giggled and was pleased to find such a concise, yet accurate articulation of a place where it routinely rains inside, where security lines snake all the way out to the train station and where a microscope is necessary to see the cream cheese on the bagels at the Dunkin Donuts in terminal D.

Then I flew out of LED.

Let’s Enjoy Dilapidation, shall we? 

The building looked like an office building out of the 1960s—dusty Venetian blinds and ugly brown marble that looked like it should have had filing cabinets against it but instead had blue metal seats that lost to a cactus in a comfort contest.

I wanted to take a picture of it so that every time I talk shit about PHL in the future I’d be able to remind myself that things could be so much worse, but I had a dilemma.

 

DSCN0982“Richard!”  I said.  “Sit here and paste a silly grin on your face so it looks like I’m taking a picture of you because the Russian version of the TSA is over there and I have nowhere to run if they ask me why I’m taking a photo of their airport.”

See, security is located right at the gate, which means once you go through, that’s it—no food, no drink, no bathrooms, nada.  You are pretty much penned within a glass-walled box with nowhere to go.  Better hope that flight isn’t delayed!

That is, of course, if you can make it past the Lively, Enjoyable Delight that is Russian immigration and passport control.

And that, of course, if you manage not to Lunge, Enragingly Displeased at the inept group of, like, six people in front of you taking ten minutes to figure out a touch screen kiosk to print their boarding passes because the hell we were waiting in that check-in queue, especially when we didn’t have bags to check.

And that, of course, if you pass the totally Lighthearted, Ebullient Delectation that is the security inspection just to walk in the door of damn place.

But there is a Friday’s.  For some reason, there is a Friday’s.  It’s like a Lurid, Eerie Dream in which you are lost in some nightmarish setting and then you see something familiar that somehow renders it more horrifying.

But what counts is that we made it out on time, made our connection in Frankfurt and landed in Dublin, where the kind folks at that airport thought to bring out two—two—immigration officers to deal with a horde of non-EU passport holders.  That was exceptionally nice of them.  I mean, I totally was not ready for this trip to be over, so I’m glad they were gracious enough to let me extend it an extra 45 minutes.  It was exactly what I wanted at 11:00 at night.  Thanks, guys.  You always pull through for me, like when I came to Ireland initially this summer after not having seen my boyfriend in forever and you guys were all like, Pfffft, we’ll open four immigration windows to handle five full flights because absence makes the heart grow fonder, bitch.

I do so love your Definitely Unequivocal Buffoonery.

 

So let’s step back.  Total credits obtained?  16 out of a possible 17.  Successful.  How many were Big Apples?  Five.  Why does it seem like there were more than five?  This is not the time for rhetorical questions.  How many were Pax creations?  Two.  On how many coasters did my life flash before my eyes?  Two.  Are the two previous questions related?  Yes.  How many trips did we take on the Moscow Metro?  Twenty.  How many times did accordion players board said Metro and sing to us?  One.  How many stops until they switched cars?  One.  How do I know this?  It’s an accordion we’re talking about here.  How many times did we eat at McDonald’s?  Three.  How is it that the Russians have mastered the perfect salt to fry ratio?  Whatever, keep doing it.  How many miles did we walk?  I don’t understand why the coaster enthusiast community has a little bit of a weight problem.  How many clean public bathrooms did I encounter?  What dumbass asks a question like that?  Please.

Would I do it again?  Yes.

Just Russia, please grow up and fix your attitude towards the LGBT community.  You have an Olympics to host and you’re not making a very strong argument for why you deserve this honor.  No, you are by no means the only archaic country with zero regard for basic human rights in this context, but that’s hardly an excuse.

And you know, it’s not just about the Olympics.  It’s about equality and human dignity.  It’s about being educated.  It’s about common sense.  Yet for some reason, Russian lawmakers aren’t interested in that.  They would rather wallow in ignorance, setting their priorities on finding new ways to flaunt their cowardice.

It is impossible to respect that.

To say I want to go back is the truth, but it troubles me to say it.  I don’t want to support a country whose leaders’ beliefs are so far backward that they are looking up to their asses before their heads.

And yet a nation is so much more than its lawmakers.  To personally boycott a place based on a few idiots puts on blinders to thousands of intelligent, good people who can do little to change a suffocatingly conservative agenda.

Also there is a new Giant Inverted Boomerang being installed.

So I don’t know.  That’s the only way I can leave it for now.

Australia Introduction

Christmas, 1995: I’m sitting cross legged under the tree, my mouth agape at one of the finest gifts Santa has ever given me: a copy of “World’s Greatest Roller Coaster Thrills in 3D” on VHS. There exists home video footage of me in all my pre-braces bucktoothed glory nervously marveling at the people riding with their arms up in the Desperado train that’s dropping down the vertical edge of the sleeve. The previous year’s yuletide windfall—“America’s Greatest Roller Coaster Thrills in 3D”—had probably spent more time that year in the VCR than out of it. I could hardly wait to go international.

Unfortunately, the elves’ handiwork was not quite up to par and a broken piece rattling around somewhere inside the video meant that my dad spent Christmas afternoon painstakingly transferring the tape to a blank cassette. Eventually, I was finally able to pop the non-defective tape into the VCR (now simply labeled “COASTERS” in light blue marker) and fall head over heels for the likes of Nemesis and Olympia Looping.

 

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(Seriously, my dad is the greatest. Thank you, Dad, for facilitating this hobby wherein I’m now about to present this blog to the world instead of that Pulitzer everyone always assumed I’d write someday. I’m sure you’re proud.)

The Australia portion made it very clear the country was lacking in big thrills—I mean, if Sea World’s former Arrow corkscrew made the cut into a film supposedly showcasing the “world’s greatest,” that’s really not saying a heck of a lot. At the time, though, I didn’t yet know enough about roller coasters to realize this, and it wasn’t long before I started dreaming about the exotic trips I just knew I’d someday take to ride them all.

I did, however, realize that Australia was really, really, really far away from the Philadelphia suburbs. It thus became in my mind one of those places on the once-in-a-lifetime list. I never doubted that I’d make it there, but I was sure it wouldn’t happen until a really, really, really special occasion. Maybe my honeymoon, I thought.

Of course, it never occurred to my nine year old self that finding a decent guy who was as crazy over roller coasters as I was might be somewhat of a challenge. I just assumed it would all work out.

And it did, just not the honeymoon part, although when the Avis guy at OOL asked if we were on our honeymoon, we both recoiled in horror and let nary a nanosecond pass before uttering a vehement “No!” in unison. (Which, ironically enough, is exactly the sort of thing we do in this relationship that tempts me to add “at least not yet” to the previous sentence. Well, that and our mutual understanding that sacrificing some Sydney tourist stops to accommodate ten hours of driving for a Pinfari Zyklon is an acceptable use of time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

 

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And so, last November when Richard received a promotional email from Emirates advertising low fares to Australia, the Land Down Under migrated from the realm of fuzzy-someday-fantasy to holy-shit-this-is-actually-happening reality. Cue excitement. Cue Men at Work being stuck in my head for three months straight.  Cue obsessively researching anything and everything about this country and hey, let’s throw in a two day stop to New Zealand too because THERE’S an Arrow corkscrew that’s actually worthy of a superlative or two (like “remotest” or “most LGBT friendly”).

 

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The bulk of my knowledge about Australia before this trip centered on the fact that it contains more things that can kill you than anywhere else in the world, like spiders that can eat birds; saltwater crocodiles that fight sharks like something out of a low budget Syfy film; the Satanic spawn between dinosaurs and Alfred Hitchcock’s avian chums known as cassowaries; the faster-than-you-can-run Eastern brown snake; the fact that it’s so bloody hot that you might as well be walking on the sun; the fact that you’ll want to rip your brain out now that you have Smash Mouth stuck in your head; swarms of flies whose fondness for mucus membranes and ear canals makes running through fire seem appealing; and Vegemite.

In other words, any place where even Steve Irwin couldn’t make it out alive is a place you do not fuck with.

 

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Damn straight. Ain’t nobody got time for that when it’s magpie mating season.

 

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As such, I was a bit apprehensive, but I figured as long as I resolved to stay the hell out of the water and to never ever sleep so a tarantula couldn’t carry me off in the middle of the night, I might stand a fighting chance. Thankfully, 18 hours worth of Emirates flights toughened me up before I even arrived, testing the limits of my endurance with a middle seat in a ten-abreast 777 and cuisine that made a Weight Watchers TV dinner seem appetizing.

(Let’s take a second and talk about this. I really don’t understand why an airline that serves caviar to first class passengers can’t be bothered to make even the most rudimentary pass at edibility for economy class. We’re talking potatoes that were as soggy as cardboard soaking in a puddle and scrambled eggs that had the consistency of Weetabix. Never in the history of Cinnabons has there been a more divine Cinnabon than the one I had at 2:00 a.m. during our DXB layover. I still dream about it.)

 

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And so, when Perth’s green coastline finally appeared on the in-flight camera, I was more than ready to take on whatever Australia had to throw at me.

Which turned out to be someone with horrendous gas by the baggage carousel, the sort of gas that makes the dumpsters behind an Indian restaurant in the middle of summer seem fresh as a daisy.

First challenge conquered, we set out.

It took less than 24 hours to fall madly in love with the country.

And while after two weeks I remain mildly terrified of Australia for the reasons listed above, I am stupidly in love with it to the point that not even the rumor of Emirates adding another seat per row to their A380s is enough to deter me from returning.

 

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But you shouldn’t, and you can’t, make Australia all about coasters. Shouldn’t because, while the pickings are better than they were in 1995, there are still less than 25 permanent credits in a country that is the sixth largest in the world. Can’t because if you manage to ride them all in one trip, you are one lucky bastard and I hate you. Only four of the nine parks we visited had all their coasters open because the curse of visiting a country where year round operation is feasible is that annual maintenance schedules (or rumored restraint failures…or derailments…) quite literally throw a monkey wrench into even the best planned itinerary.

 

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And hell, sometimes a coaster will just never open at all.

 

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So rather than plowing through the country in a credit whorish frenzy, we set aside some time for sightseeing, at one point going three consecutive days without a park visit (I know, shocking, right?). Don’t get me wrong. We were still utterly exhausted by the end: we chose Perth as our kickoff city and then proceeded east to Sydney via Uluru, followed by Merimbula, Melbourne, the Gold Coast, and Brisbane before capping everything off with a 40 hour stint in New Zealand (and don’t forget the 33 hour trip home).

 

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But missed credits and arachnids notwithstanding, I fell in love with Australia because it is so goddamn beautiful, from the isolated oasis that is Perth to the red severity of the outback to the Gold Coast’s rolling waves to the glittering silhouette of Sydney. I fell in love with Australians, from their boundless friendliness to their sense of humor to that relentlessly delightful accent.

 

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I fell in love with Tim Tams, the fact that sheep shearing is considered respectable entertainment, and the pedestrian crossing signs, which are a pair of legs—just a pair of legs, stiff straight rectangles that for some strange reason don’t seem to have knees and for some even stranger reason are wearing clogs.

And perhaps the greatest thing of all to love?

In 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a swim off the Portsea, Victoria coast and never came back. He jumped in, swam out and poof, suddenly he was gone. It’s assumed that he drowned, given the rather boisterous state of the sea that day and the area’s notorious riptides, not to mention the fact that he nearly drowned a few months earlier.

So what did this country do to honor his memory?

They named a municipal swimming pool after him.

You classy son of a bitch, Australia. Marry me.

* * *

A few quick notes:

First, the photos in this trip report are both Richard’s and my own (this is why some photos will look waaay better than others!). Also, I’ve pulled in some photos from his previous trips to better illustrate some things.

Unlike my Russia trip report where I published everything at once, I’ve decided to release these posts as I write them for several reasons. First, I anticipate these posts being much longer given my desire to recount as many interesting details as possible in order to a) give decent coverage to the places we visited since Australia and New Zealand, while not totally off the beaten track, are still some of the lesser visited coaster destinations, and b) create something that will help me process and solidify the experience for my own benefit. Second, I am a slow, slow, slow writer, which ties into reason #3: I am impatient and want something new on this blog because after the last year and a half of doing General Life Things like completing a degree, working, and uprooting my entire existence from one continent to another, it’s kind of embarrassing that this blog has remained stagnant for as long as it has. So please bear with me. If you like what you see, tell me. If you don’t, tell me. If you don’t want to say anything at all, that’s cool too. At any rate, I hope you enjoy this enough to keep checking back periodically.

To Oz!

Adventure World

Over the years I have learned that it’s generally a good idea to verify promotional discounts found on third party and deal-of-the-day websites. Unless you’re dealing with big names like Groupon or LivingSocial, it’s wise to err on the side of caution and make sure the business for which you intend to purchase discount tickets has actually endorsed said tickets. There are quite a few advertisements out there that are, in fact, too good to be true.

Hence, my first direct encounter with Adventure World was ringing them one morning to inquire if the Scoopon deal I had seen online for $41.00 all day passes (a $13.00 savings over the gate price) was valid. I keyed in enough numbers to take up nearly half the screen of the cordless phone and waited for the miracle of long distance telecommunications technology to do its thing.

“Adventure World! How may I help?” answered a male voice, its chipper tone discernible even from 15,000 kilometers away. I asked my question.

“Eh, Scoopon? Yeah, we take those!” he said exuberantly. “Now, just be sure you print it out and bring it with you to the main gate. We can’t accept it if it’s on a mobile device, just so you’re aware.”

I got the distinct impression I could have asked this man about the chemical composition of margarine or the digestive patterns of freshwater slugs and he would have been no less enthusiastic than he was now.

I thanked him for the information and he cheerfully thanked me for calling and wished me a great day.

I clicked off the phone thinking two things: 1) No wonder Richard lets Australian Karen misguide him on his GPS; surely there’s no way anyone could remain annoyed at that accent no matter how many times it chirps out “recalculating” after directing you to roads that don’t actually exist* and 2) What a super duper rockin’ incredibly nice friendly guy.

*Ladies and gentlemen, this is what we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”

That super duper rockin’ incredibly nice friendly guy was only the beginning.

 

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I had always imagined Perth as the absolute worst place where a coaster enthusiast could live, apart from maybe, oh, Antarctica. Perth is the most remote city in the world. Its closest urban neighbor, Adelaide, is a three hour flight away. Now granted, such isolation combined with the existence of just two permanent roller coasters in the entirety of Western Australia does not exactly lend itself as a breeding ground for enthusiasts.

This is a crying shame.

Not because the world needs more coaster enthusiasts. (Ugh! Can you imagine the horror?)

But because if Adventure World is an indication of how Perth can run an amusement park, then it is our loss that there aren’t more of them, no matter how many hours of sitting in a cramped 777 subsisting on inedible Emirates meals it would take to reach them.

 

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Let me be blunt: I love this park. I love this park in a way that is bound to get pelted with accusations that will try to unmask some sort of ego ballooning motive behind my statements. And that’s okay. I mean, it’s just a kiddie coaster and a Euro-Fighter, right? What could possibly be so great about that? Yeah, yeah, here we go again, another coaster enthusiast spewing exaggerations just to make the rest of us envious that we haven’t been there.

You know how it goes. The fewer enthusiasts who have visited a place/ridden a coaster, the more hyped the ratings tend to be. Coasters that are reasonably decent are morphed a slurry of superlatives usually containing such descriptors as “insane” and “Schwarzkopf” while a slight knock or two to the head from a lesser ride becomes cranial trauma of unprecedented proportions. Such exaggeration is self-serving: Look where I’ve traveled. I have been there, you have not. I’m one of a handful who have experienced this, and I want you to know it, so here’s an extravagant description to remind you what you’re missing. I did something different. Therefore I’m special. Remoteness breeds bragging, where bragging is disguised as dramatic adulation or derision.

So I can understand why my strong opinions over this small, seemingly inconsequential park in the most isolated city in the world may be met with skepticism.

But when I say that I would choose living nearby Adventure World over your average Six Flags park, I’m not saying it to be a pretentious hipster asshole intent on belittling the mainstream.

 

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I’m saying it because I mean it, and if you’ll walk with me through these gates, I’ll try and show you why.

As I mentioned, we’d bought discount tickets from Scoopon, which we swapped for wristbands at the gate in an exchange both expedient and pleasant. Entering the park, we began mentally mapping our plan of attack. To do this most effectively, we naturally sought out the nearest…

 

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…newspaper? Wait.

Wait, who reads…why…I don’t…

?

Why are there newspapers at an amusement park? Is this an Australian thing?

 

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Oh.

 

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Okay.

 

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Yes. Yes, now I see.

 

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Adventure World’s entry area is devoid of grandiose focal points: no castle (well, not anymore), no carousel, no fountain, no main street, no whimsical topiaries. Instead there is…a lawn.

Just that. A lawn. You know, grass. Some trees. A pool down the way. It’s like walking into your backyard.

It doesn’t seem like much of an opening statement, except it is because it captures exactly the essence of this place.

Adventure World is not a park where shirts and shoes are required to ride; where bearers of homemade food either slouch in camp chairs atop baking blacktop or are pointed toward splintered, unshaded picnic tables outside the gate; where the decision of whether or not to ride risks hinging on having enough change handy to hire a locker for loose articles.

 

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It is a park for spreading a blanket in the shade, grabbing a soda from your cooler, kicking off your sandals, sitting back, and unfolding that newspaper you picked up on the way in.

 

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(That is, of course, if your kids don’t pull you beneath the monstrous dumping bucket of the splash structure. Which they most assuredly will. Multiple times. So they can giggle. And you can shiver and wonder how many more years they will find this so entertaining. Because parenting. There was a lot of such parenting going on in this area.)

 

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But seriously, the first thing that really grabbed my attention about this park was just how much green space there was. Adventure World is very much a place that encourages spending the whole day, but they don’t do it by cramming the place with enough adrenaline pumping stimuli to keep even the most ADD-addled brains entertained. Instead, they invite you to bring your own coolers, chairs—even tents (and if you don’t have your own, there are several park-provided canopies dotting the lawns). Sure, they have rides and slides—but if you’d rather just hang out and chill, there’s nothing stopping you from settling in and enjoying a lazy afternoon.

 

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At the center of it all is this massive swimming pool, and this—to me, at least—made the whole setting very reminiscent of summer afternoons at the community pool or family gatherings at my grandparents’ house.

Even some spots on the surrounding grass were well worn from hundreds of bare feet tramping back and forth. It all had a very homey, laid-back feel to it that emitted a very warm and welcoming vibe.

 

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Anyway, I’m guessing you probably want me to shut up already about lawns and talk about this, right?

 

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Well, just in case you were worried my fondness for Adventure World would turn this entire post into a prattling, rose-colored rhapsody, I’ll put it out there now: I went for the Excedrin after my first ride on this.

And yes, it pains me to say that…but not as much as the headache that plagued me the next 36 hours after riding.

 

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Let’s at least start with the positives: The ride is well themed, starting with this “guardian” patrolling the height check.

 

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All around the base of the ride are these hooded grim reapers.

 

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And there are plenty more to guide you toward the station. The station exterior could stand some improvement over the corrugated-tin-warehouse-with-2D-mock-stone-corners look, but if the other rides around the park are any indication (and more on this in a bit), I say it’s only a matter of time before this gets its due.

 

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The safety announcement video played inside the station also kept in character, so to speak. Never have preexisting back and neck conditions sounded so sinister—a deep, menacing voice growled out the usual spiel as shadowy figures drifted within misty darkness on the screen.

 

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Even the souvenirs go a few steps beyond the norm (you’ve gotta admit, this is creative and a lot more useful than yet another t-shirt).

I read in an issue of First Drop that the “abyss” theme was chosen due to its flexible interpretation and timelessness. I give nothing but kudos to the park for this, for this is something whose storyline isn’t dependent on renewing a license every few years and then spending money to rip out the theming and redo it as characters and brands become obsolete or the license expires (coughSixFlagscough).

 

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Common sense also prevails here, where the park thought to demarcate separate front and back row queues. It’s a little thing, but I’ve always appreciated the freedom to choose my seat. We chose the front row for our first ride.

Back when we were first planning this trip in November, I watched a load of POV videos, most of which I’d completely forgotten by the time February rolled around. This was good. It meant that I was caught totally off guard as the car slowly rolled out of the station into the enclosed pre-lift section. “Welcome to: the ABYSS” rumbled an ominously deep voice, and, right on cue, the hissing of the final syllable mutated into a medley of screams (including an unintended “oh whoa!” from yours truly) as the train abruptly pitched forward and dropped sharply. The track was black, the room was dark—for the first time rider, there was no way to detect that move ahead of time. Brilliant.

A slow in-line twist with plenty of hang time followed and the train emerged outside at the base of the lift.

So far, so good.


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The vertical lift was unsettling, as it always is on a Euro-Fighter. The drop was quick, brisk, and ass-lifting, as always. My photo of the lift came out crooked, as always.

 

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It wasn’t until exiting the second inversion that it started to unravel, beginning with a hard yank that delivered a mild flogging to the temples. I winced as the first pings of a headache began teasing me.

 

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But the overbanked turn was (thankfully) taken with more grace.

And then a marvelous thing happened.

You know how great airtime hills are? You know how great headchoppers are? You know how absolutely genius it is when you combine the two?

 

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Yeah, so someone on the design team decided to place the peak of an airtime hill beneath the midcourse block. Like, really, reeeeeally close beneath the midcourse block. This person deserves to be showered with puppies and ice cream because OH MY GOD WOW.

By this point in the ride, the train is plowing along at a considerable clip. There’s not much time to react, let alone anticipate, the shock of shooting up that hill, feeling your rear eject from the seat and suddenly seeing some steel bars about to give a whole new meaning to the term “face time.” This was the part that generated the most screams. This was the part where any hands in the air quickly found their way back to the grab handles.

Of course, you dive at seemingly the last second. The whole thing—up, ohshit, down—is just two seconds, but it’s two seconds where speed and agility combine to maximize the shock value of an optical illusion.

It’s like a sound bite advertisement for a Euro-Fighter.

Unfortunately, the next bit was like a segment from a 60 Minutes exposé.

 

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The train’s next move was an upward turn to the midcourse block, where I yelped in pain.

I have never done this on a coaster before.

 

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Let me be clear about this. When I say that I yelped, I don’t mean the theatrical grunts and expletives that often accompany a ride on something like an SLC—in other words, the noises we (usually) deliberately make to, er…enhance the ride experience. I mean that I yelped like my dog Zoe did that time I accidentally stepped on her paw, which is to say that I did it involuntarily because I wasn’t expecting what I can only describe as laterals of all the wrong sorts that got my head in all the wrong places.

 

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The car careened off the block, although my throbbing skull left me a little distracted and not exactly looking forward to the third inversion. I focused instead on bracing…

 

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…which was wise, because this final turn into the brakes was just as loaded with nasty yanks and jolts as the one up to the midcourse.

We exited and neither of us was in any hurry to rejoin the queue. I took some painkillers for the headache that I knew would destroy my afternoon if I didn’t, but I still spent the rest of the day (and indeed, most of the next) with residual pangs popping up here and there like a Whac-A-Mole game.

So what went wrong?

 

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We eventually came back for more rides in the afternoon, racking up a total of five for the whole day. This means that you’re probably thinking I have no one to blame for that headache but myself. You are correct. Yet both of us felt that we couldn’t travel all the way here and ride the star attraction only once. I wanted to dissect it and really get a feel for it. It didn’t seem fair to write it off after just one ride.

 

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So, five rides later, here is what I learned:

  • The back row gave a smoother ride than the front. Don’t know why, but this seems to be a common Euro-Fighter thing, at least in my experience.
  • Once I knew what to expect, some tactical defensive riding enabled far more tolerable rides. Yet I wouldn’t go so far as to say the experience could be classified as pleasant.
  • Except for that airtime hill. Oh lordy lordy, that airtime hill.
  • It wasn’t just my jaded enthusiast self who noticed the headbanging. One girl in the queue was warning her friend that she had to keep her head back because otherwise, “your head will go like this,” she said, demonstrating some moves that appeared to be inspired from Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” music video.   
  • The layout is really well done. It has elements of surprise, a varied and interesting set of inversions, disorienting directional changes, and it capitalizes on every inch of its compact footprint.
  • That. Airtime. Hill.
  • The ride has superb pacing. It never lets up in terms of speed. You really get a sense of this observing it from the ground—the car just relentlessly barrels along the course, quick and crisp and adroit. It’s quite fun to watch.
  • Which means that airtime hill is breathtaking every single time, just in case I hadn’t mentioned it.

And yet, therein seems to lie the problem.

That evening, Richard posted to parkz.com.au about our disappointing Abyss experience. In a rare example of candid communication between the higher ups and their guests, Mark Shaw, Adventure World’s general manager, responded. The jolts, he said, occur when the coaster is running close to maximum speed. The steel starts to bend above 40°C and therefore Gerstlauer’s formal recommendation is to close the coaster if the mercury rises higher than that.

In other words, the warmer it is, the faster it runs, which means it’s going to take the turns more recklessly than is optimal. The temperature that day was in the mid thirties. As such, I am hopeful that the heat may have been the major factor in our eventual conclusion that Abyss—sadly—just isn’t that rerideable.

So I’d certainly be willing to give it another shot in the future because I honestly feel like a class one beeyotch for trashing Adventure World’s top attraction. I really do.

After that first ride, we recovered with a breakfast of champions: French fries (me) and sushi (Richard) before heading for the kiddie coaster.

 

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Which brings me to the next reason why this park is so great: the elaborate theming of their children’s area.

 

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When Richard first visited Adventure World in 2008, the children’s area was known as “Kids Cove.” It has since been expanded and turned into “Dragon’s Kingdom,” complete with an original back story about a lovable dragon named Yarli and his sister Yarlotte. (Their website encourages reading it to kids as a bedtime story, which is a pretty darn terrific way to get kids excited about their visit.)

 

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None of the rides here are buy ‘n plop off-the-shelf models. Rather, they are cleverly themed to the characters, like this Frog Hopper made to look like Yarli is hoisting himself up the castle tower to visit Yarlotte.

 

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Attention to detail is evident everywhere, from large scale scenery pieces…

 

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…to the way the park made a seemingly vacant patch of trees…

 

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…into a miniature world of its own.

 

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The entire package makes it feel like you’re walking through a fairy tale.

 

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Although I can’t say as though this is my definition of happily ever after.

 

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I am fairly certain that the creators of the Zamperla 80STD were on a mission to make kids hate roller coasters (actually, when you consider the likes of the Volare and the Coney Island Thunderbolt, I’m also fairly certain those same creators decided to turn this into a lifelong mission).

Let me put it this way: even the ride operator warned everyone that Dragon Express was rough.

This was not exactly a shining endorsement, especially coming from a representative of the park itself. In this case, her cautionary words were not those of a teenager trying to deflect would-be riders in the interest of remaining in sedentary texting mode. She merely wanted us to realize that holding on tight was pretty much our only chance at emerging with as little bruising as possible (okay, she didn’t say it in quite so many words, but what she did say sounded so cheerful that it almost made the prospect of imminent injury seem just super duper).

 

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Of course, such advice can only go so far when you are six foot two. To borrow one of Richard’s favorite phrases, this coaster rode like a shopping trolley that’s missing a wheel rolling over cobblestones during an earthquake.

I use Richard’s phrase because I think it’s the best way to honor someone whose knees were totally obliterated after our ride, their skin red, deeply furrowed, and of great amusement to me.

 

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Here’s hoping Adventure World hatches something better on this spot someday.

 

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Adjacent to Yarli and friends was the Aussie Wildlife Experience.

 

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We ventured in and were heading down a sloped path, when all of a sudden: “Hello there! How are you?”

The voice was not exactly next to us, but still close enough that I turned. There, standing at the kiddie jeep ride across the way, was a ride operator. It didn’t dawn on me until I realized there was no one else in the immediate vicinity that he was talking to us.

Now, you have to realize that separating us was a fence, a line of trees, a path and part of the queue for the jeeps. He didn’t have to greet us. In fact, given the distance, he probably had to raise his voice considerably to do it. He went out of his way to make the effort, but this wasn’t some rote enactment of corporate culture just because the boss was watching. He wasn’t done yet.

“Do you guys wanna ride?”

Wait. You’re asking us, two fully grown adults, if we want to ride a children’s jeep ride? Seriously?

Well duh.

 

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So we left one safari for another, but we didn’t get very far on this one either because the power supply chose that moment to go on the fritz. With apologies as upbeat as his invitation to ride, the ride op told us he’d let us know when it was back up and running.

 

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Back to the animals we went, and…well, it was about what you’d expect, right down to the didgeridoos sounding from hidden speakers and animals turning away the second you aimed a camera at them.

 

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There were koalas…

 

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…dingos…

 

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…a wombat…

 

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…and, of course, kangaroos.

Richard eventually called to me that the jeeps were running. I turned to leave, then stopped dead in my tracks. My eyes widened.

 

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It was Hampton!

Last December, the time came to send my 13 year old English springer spaniel, Hampton, to the Rainbow Bridge following a gradual but steady decline from Cushing’s disease complications. Anyone who has loved an animal knows how devastating that moment is. I cried so much that I’m pretty sure I bruised an eye and facilitated an increase in the stock value of Kleenex.

 

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But that kangaroo, with his “disdainful expression and lackadaisical pose,” as Richard so eloquently put it (Hampton could be quite the grumpy old man), made me wonder if this was my dog reincarnated (okay, well not seriously because this kangaroo was clearly born before last December, but you know what I mean).

And that made me smile.

(And then cry some more as I wrote this section. But anyway.)

 

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With Yarli finally ready to join us on safari, we set off.

Yarli’s Safari was both fun and educational:

 

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Fun because how could any ride that involves toot-tooting a jolly little horn in a pimpin’ zebra striped bubble gum pink jeep that’s cruising around a flamboyant blue dragon not be fun?

 

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Educational because it teaches kids practical life lessons, such as that speed limits need only be obeyed in the presence of law enforcement,

and:

 

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See, anywhere else this would be considered theming, but this is Australia, so I’m pretty sure that’s a legitimate warning.

 

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It was about this time that the pool was really starting to look appealing. Considering that the temperature in perpetually-cloudy-Dublin when we left was hovering just above freezing, Perth’s sunny skies and 30+ degree dry heat were kind of a shock to the system.

I oh-so-casually mentioned to my favorite hydrophobic Irishman that it sure would be lovely to dip our toes in the water later.

He gave me a look that suggested I’d just asked if we could pedal a red sleigh past some dinosaurs and a shack offering Golden Gaytimes.

 

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Although this could have been because we approached a ride that required us to pedal a red sleigh past some dinosaurs and a shack offering Golden Gaytimes. I dunno.

 

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Rail Rider is a self-propelled pedal ride. The course is actually quite long…

 

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…even going so far as to travel outside the park perimeter—that’s the orange track you saw in the photograph of the entrance.

 

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If nothing else, Rail Rider is good for overhead shots.

 

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And yes, it does travel above Dinosaur Island, sometimes referred to by its other name, Not A $5 Upcharge That Closes In The Rain Despite It Being A Walkthrough Attraction.

 

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And yes, it does pass by the Surf Shack, which sells Streets brand ice cream treats…

 

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…who make these. So no, I did not actually make that up.

Our route next took us down the front end of the park, which we’d initially bypassed in favor of Abyss.

 

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What did the pirate say when he turned eighty?

Aye matey.

 

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The theme of self propelled rides continued with bumper boats…

 

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…paddle boats (although they looked decidedly closed today)…

 

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…and go karts.

 

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The latter even came equipped with shaded stadium seating and a viewing deck.

 

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And what a view.

Indeed, all morning long, Richard had kept remarking how much better the park looked compared to his first visit in 2008. Later that evening, he set his past photos side by side to the ones he’d taken that day and it was like watching some extreme makeover montage. The only thing missing was that Jill Sobule “Supermodel” song they play in Clueless.

Remember how I said earlier that I’d bet it’s only a matter of time before Abyss‘s station gets an upgrade?

 

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Rampage went from being an Ikea colored and equally minimalist (Moser) Maverick…

 

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…to a raging minotaur intent on churning his victims’ stomachs and inner ear equilibrium into a queasy entanglement more disorienting than the Labyrinth (on which he succeeded quite admirably when some poor guy projectile vomited on it later that afternoon, literally dousing both my opportunity and desire to ride it!).

 

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What was once an off-the-shelf Zamperla Power Surge in both name and color scheme…

 

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…has been morphed into the Black Widow, featuring not only a new paint job and what I presume is a small to average sized Australian spider to go with it, but also a soundtrack.

 

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Yes, really. While Richard and I were getting all paparazzi over Abyss, we were momentarily puzzled as to where this jaunty children’s singsong rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” was coming from.

The arachnid themed soundtrack ranged from cutesy to the truly horrifying: later, I heard Iggy Azalea’s and Rita Ora’s “Black Widow.”

 

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From faded and drab…

 

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…to vibrant and revitalized. It’s as though the park were a manuscript, with the earlier photos showing the first draft and the present ones showing the published edition, which is why I suspect they’ll eventually take the proverbial red pen to Abyss‘s station.

It’s clear Adventure World takes presentation very seriously, and while I’m sure an argument could be made to the contrary—after all, if it was so important, why didn’t they do it right the first time around?—I’d put it to you that budgeting is invariably different here than at a corporate theme park.

Get the ride open first, bring people in, then use the revenue to theme later. At least, that’s how I’d approach it.

Or, you know, invest some capital in upping the quality of the basics, like food. They do that, too. From Mark Shaw, as posted on parkz.com.au:

 

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I was excited when I read this. I had the chicken Caesar salad for lunch, and the dressing…well, let’s just say that Richard laughed uproariously when I said with complete seriousness that I was worried the dressing might be fat free (apparently women don’t generally say this kind of thing?). You know how reduced fat dressings make up for the lack of flavor by adding sugar so that the result is this cloyingly artificial, watery swill?

I’m not saying it was fat free, but it sure seemed inspired by something similar.

 

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So yeah, I’m not too thrilled at having paid something like $11 to eat dry lettuce, but when I think of the cardboard covered gristle that has lasted long enough to make “Flags Famous Chicken Strips” famous for all the wrong reasons, I realize with Mark’s post that this is a park that recognizes the importance of making its food appealing to more than just scavenging seagulls. They understand priorities: at the end of the day, a flashy attraction is not going to quell a growling stomach.

 

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And nobody likes feeling like a hangry T-Rex.

 

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So, speaking of food.

 

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German fairs have lots of food.

Now, if Adventure World was as amenable to importing some German fair food items as they were with this, they might really be onto something. Ahem.

Adventure World’s new for 2009 toy was Freefall, a Huss Shot’n Drop tower that made many appearances at European fairs under the ownership of Michael Goetzke.

 

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It came at the expense of Turbo Mountain, a customized Schwarzkopf Jet Star II that once stood on this spot. Turbo Mountain also began life on the fair circuit before establishing permanent Australian residency (first at Luna Park Sydney before arriving at Adventure World in 1991), but sadly, it has now gone to that great big midway in the sky.

And while it may not be on the same level as a classic Schwarzkopf (sometimes it’s a few levels above, other times a few below) Adventure World, being AWesome, milked their new addition for all it was worth:

 

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They decided to put it on a hill.

Which was good, because it was more scenic than thrilling. To me, at least. The macho looking guy next to me who turned into a shrieking six year old girl probably thought otherwise.

 

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The ride cycle consisted of three skyward launches and one drop that were, if not particularly powerful, at least smooth and pleasant. The ride operator seemed to take special delight in drawing out the time between upward launches. She sat in the control booth where she appeared to be doing paperwork. As the car settled, she’d take a few seconds to write before looking up. Then she’d grin at us and reach over to send us up again.

Richard tells me that she couldn’t have been doing this because the ride program is all automatic, but it honestly looked like she was controlling it. Either way—whether she was actually teasing us or knew the cycle so well she could pretend as such—it did provide those delicious seconds of suspense so integral to the drop tower experience.

Then again, maybe she was still in a festive mood from taking the time to make one child feel very important by wishing him a very happy seventh birthday over the ride’s PA system for the entire midway to hear :)

 

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Said festive mood prevailed when we reached the hill’s summit, where the chairlift operator practically threw us a party upon our arrival: “ALL RIGHT, GUYS! WOOO! CONGRATULATIONS ON MAKING IT UP HERE!!”

 

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Amidst the imaginary confetti and the din of noisemakers, he invited us to take in the view as a reward for a physical feat that apparently only a few accomplish. Indeed, given the hill’s steepness, I suspect the majority of foot traffic comes from departing sky ride guests who opt to ride up and walk down, not the other way around.

 

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He picked up on our accents immediately, which predictably led to chatting about travel and even more predictably about how far away Australia is from everything and still more predictably about how long it takes to get there from anywhere and how long it takes to get anywhere from there.

This segued nicely into the recommendation he made as he locked the restraint.

“Alright, it takes about three months to get down the hill, so make sure you’re comfortable and have enough food!”

And with that we were off.

 

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Well, actually, we kept talking with him because it took awhile before we were out of hearing range. But eventually we were off, in a slow, creaky, Grandpa-Simpson-chasing-that-turtle-who-stole-his-dentures kind of way.

 

I’m serious. This thing took longer to get to the end than a Peter Jackson film.

 

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(Now I understand why Yarli has aged about 70 years on the ride sign.)

We passed the time taking photos. Lots of photos. Lots and lots and lots of photos.

 

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(Which you’d think I’d be able to center and focus given that we might as well have been standing still, but no. Seriously, what even is this?)

 

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Hell, I probably could have drawn the surrounding scenery if I’d wanted.

 

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The pool came into view again.

 

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I thought again how we were the only people in the park not wearing bathing suits.

 

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(Really. I honestly don’t think I saw anyone without one, even on the dry rides.)

 

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I not-as-casually-as-before mentioned to Richard that it sure would be lovely to dip our feet in that water later.

He gave me a look that suggested he had seen a sign quoting the chairlift’s maximum speed as 1.2 meters a second.

Although that could have been because there was actually a sign in the downhill station quoting the chairlift’s maximum speed as 1.2 meters a second. Or maybe it was 1.8. I probably should have taken a photo of this, but we were too busy chatting with the ride operator, who was asking us about our favorite rides and how our day was going. I’m sure if we’d been younger she would have praised us on our bravery for conquering Abyss like she did with the eight year old boy in front of us (how do I know he was eight? She asked him, of course. And he was one proud eight year old after she complimented his bravery, that’s for sure).

But the idea stayed with me the rest of the day.

 

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It stayed with me as I looked down upon the Abyss dudes sweating it out in their robes as the chairlift crawled back up the hill for its return journey, a musing interrupted only when the voice of the hilltop ride operator bellowed out like he was auditioning for a Ricola commercial each time he welcomed an incoming gondola.

 

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It stayed with me as we watched a wipeout or two on the water slides.

 

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And it stayed with me as we relaxed at this secluded patio, which we originally sought as a quiet spot away from the sun to eat lunch. Yet forty minutes later, long after I’d managed to work my way through that Caesar salad, we were still there, just sitting.

Which was very, very strange.

If there is one thing that Richard and I lack the ability to do, it is to just relax in a park, and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. Enthusiasts, you know that when your trips are scheduled around racking up as many credits as possible (and trying to work in some classic touristy stuff while you’re at it because hey, you never know when or even if you’ll be back someday), downtime can seem like wasted time. I, for one, often feel like I need a vacation after my vacation. Accordingly, a typical amusement park experience for us is one of constant motion. We don’t stop to sit on a bench when there are only so many hours to soak up as many experiences as possible. Besides, the sensory overload in larger parks makes relaxing about as easy as trying to fall asleep with a jackhammer cannonading outside your window.

But here, there was no pressure. Granted, it was a small park and we had done what we wanted, but still, we made no move to exit and seek novelty elsewhere, as we might normally have done at this stage in the game.

 

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Instead, we continued to let the breeze cool us off as we watched giddy kids take to the slides of the splash structure and admired the deluge created every few minutes by the tipping bucket.

And I took a sip of water and thought about how the girl who took our lunch order asked if I’d like her to dispose of my previous bottle, which so took me by surprise I had to ask her to repeat herself.

And I thought of how the teens in line with us for Abyss had come to our “defense” when the ride op went looking for a pair to fill some empty seats by making damn sure she knew we were ahead of them so we’d get first pick.

And I thought of how after every ride, that same operator smiled and thanked us for riding as she shined a flashlight into the Ikea wicker basket used to collect loose articles so that we could see what was ours in the dimly lit station.

And I gazed out upon the lawn, which had taken on the look of Seurat’s famous La Grande Jatt painting (albeit a more scantily clad version) as the mid afternoon heat had sent dozens of families to the shade where they sat on the grass or lounged supine on towels as relaxed as…as…well…

 

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And I grinned as I thought of Hampton the kangaroo, and then my Hampton, who could relax anywhere (yes, that is the Coney Island Cyclone in the background. Yes, he managed to get comfortable for his ride on the Wonder Wheel—in a swinging car, no less. That dog took his repose very, very seriously).

I turned to Richard. “I really, really love this place,” I said. And this time he didn’t give me a funny look.

 

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I knew we wouldn’t sustain this pace given the rest of the trip’s schedule. This isn’t one of those “how a seemingly trivial thing caused a major reevaluation of my life that I’ll describe with buzzwords like ‘existential’ and ‘meta’ and here’s a photo of a waterfall to make it all seem so deep and symbolic” things.

It’s just that Adventure World felt so different from other parks I’ve visited, and it was lovely to just absorb and fall in stride with its laid-back, welcoming, and ultra blithe vibe.

In the end, we did spend some time by the pool. Well, I did. Richard stood by and played the role of Good Natured, Tolerating Boyfriend.

 

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He also took this photo where you can clearly see the spots I missed when applying sunscreen because over a quarter century on this planet apparently does not guarantee the wisdom to consider covering both knees with sunscreen instead of just one.

I sat at the edge, unwittingly deepening what would later be a superbly comical red blotch on my right knee, enjoying the late afternoon sun on my back but wishing I’d worn a bathing suit so I could do more than just swirl my feet around in the water.

Turns out what I was wearing was going to be my bathing suit, whether I liked it or not. I watched a young boy jump in a few feet away and paddle past me. The second I realized he had a friend intent on following him, I knew I was in trouble. Sure enough, the second boy launched himself into the water directly in front of me. This kid could not have chosen a better spot if he’d tried. I might as well have been sitting smack dab in the middle of the splash zone at a Shamu show.

Not that I minded, to be honest. The boy couldn’t have been older than six or seven and it was obvious he hadn’t done it intentionally, not to mention it was actually pretty refreshing. Richard hadn’t seen it because he’d wandered off. Shame. He missed out on a golden opportunity to poke fun at me.

The boy’s parents, however, had seen it. A few minutes later, a tiny, timid voice piped up beside me: “I’m sorry I splashed you.” I turned to face a countenance dripping as much bashfulness as his swim trunks were dripping water.

“Oh! That’s okay,” I replied. “That’s really nice of you to apologize. But don’t worry, I didn’t mind it, uh, it’s really hot out so it was refreshing!” I was blabbering, but that poor kid looked so nervous and I didn’t think it was appropriate to shout out, “HOLY SHIT, THERE IS SOME PARENTING GOING ON HERE, BLESS YOU AUSTRALIA!” He didn’t say anything else, just ran off, undoubtedly relieved to get away from this stranger who was now grinning like a goddamn fool.

If you’d told me that I was going to be perfectly satisfied that my day at Adventure World would end with me walking out the gate with big wet spots on my shorts that looked like I’d peed myself (I’m not kidding. I tied my jacket around my waist when we got dinner later. That’s how suspicious it looked!), I wouldn’t have believed you any more than I would have believed that we would wind up staying at the park until almost closing time.

 

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Because remember, it’s just a kiddie coaster and a Euro-Fighter, right? What could possibly be so great about that?

(Okay, well, turns out not much.)

But when that kiddie coaster and Euro-Fighter are located in a park whose commitment to hospitality and presentation surpasses many of the bigger/more well known players in the industry, not even a headache or a bruised knee is enough to spoil the experience. Starting with that super duper rockin’ incredibly nice friendly guy on the phone, Adventure World was one reminder after another that the best parks are not always those with the most impressive ride rosters.

It was the intangible experience—that convivial atmosphere created by smiles, enthusiasm, and friendliness, all of it backed by that laid-back attitude that seems such a singularly Australian thing—that made Adventure World for us. Add to that its polished appearance, from vibrant theming to verdant landscaping, and it all culminated into one of the best park days we’ve ever had.  That’s no small claim to make after partaking in this hobby for over twenty years. 

If only it wasn’t so far away.

So even if you think I need to stfu already about this place (but hey, if you made it all the way to the end of this, then more power to you. No, I did not think this would be so long), that’s okay. I suppose all I can really do in this trip report is relate how our day went at a remote little park in Western Australia.

 

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And we did, Adventure World, we did.

Well, that and encourage you to add a stop to Perth on your future Australia itinerary.  

And maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll walk away with a big wet spot on your ass, too.

 

Perth

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When Richard’s church choir director once mentioned he grew up in Perth, my response was, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

The reason I said this is because at the time, I was naïve, ignorant, and didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Well, I’m still all of those things, but not when it comes to Perth. Well, some aspects of Perth, anyway. Actually, “some” might even be pushing it, but whatever.

My aversion to Perth’s isolation wasn’t just based on its amusement park situation. Frankly, the thought of being that far away from anything made me uneasy. Sixteen hundred miles is a long way to go to reach the next sizable hub of civilization. That would be like living in Los Angeles and coming across nothing until Kansas City (actually, you could probably make the argument that such a situation exists already. But that’s neither here nor there). Moreover, when I was researching possible activities to fill the time in the event we left Adventure World early, there seemed to be diddly squat to do. Perth has a reputation as being Australia’s largest retirement center, which means it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the city’s main draw is a low impact, geriatric friendly botanical garden and municipal park. The more interesting attractions like Rottnest Island required more time than we had and we are not museum/symphony people. That pretty much left walking trails which, you know, I can do at home.

Basically, Perth seemed like a giant bore.

I was still excited when we arrived. I always imagined my first contact with Australia would be at Sydney, but hey. One does not fly all the way to Australia and get all poo-poo about it just because you’re instead landing in a city that, for all intents and purposes, is a wilderness outpost that happens to contain skyscrapers and a Tony Roma’s.

There was a minor issue with the rental car, so while Richard went back to the Avis desk, I opted to wait in the parking lot where the heat was enveloping me like a warm, safe hug and the car roofs glimmered in the gilded light of the sun. The sky was that brilliant rich blue of late afternoon, the kind of blue that seems to put everything into perspective in its signal that the day will end, the kind of blue whose short lived beauty makes you reflect on what’s important in life (in other words, the kind of blue that makes you look at your 9-5 and think, fuck that shit). It began to register that I was finally fulfilling a wish that had been germinating since childhood. Australia, I thought. I am in Australia.

I looked down at my feet, still encased in sneakers. No, that would not do. I unzipped my suitcase and rummaged around until I located my flip flops. My feet had that pasty, clammy look from being closed up for so long. I wiggled my toes, smiling at both the feel of the fresh air and the knowledge that there was no way any spider would be able to hide inside those sneakers now, not with that smell. After four months of living in a climate that often necessitates doubling up on socks, it hardly looked natural to be sliding my feet onto the el cheapo faux suede soles of my flip flops. But I can because it’s February and it’s summer because this is Australia, I thought. Australia. I am actually in Australia.

I stretched a little, looked down again, then frowned. My jeans and t-shirt were definitely emitting generous whiffs of l’odeur de l’avion mixed with l’odeur de has-not-showered-in-over-24-hours Megan. Back into the suitcase I went, glancing around surreptitiously as I emerged. Satisfied that the lot was devoid of people, I ducked into the front passenger seat and, hoping I wasn’t about to star on a CCTV channel, I quickly and most ungracefully shimmied out of my jeans and then just as ungracefully folded my legs into a pair of shorts.

I opened the door and stepped out barefoot. With the heavy denim gone, I felt like I could finally present myself to Australia. The heat from the ground pleasantly radiated through my heels and the balls of my feet. I pressed my toes into the macadam, gripping it like a gymnast does a balance beam. Australia, Australia, Australia. To be physically standing on this continent—a continent that, until about an hour ago, had existed in my mind solely as a series of faraway images, maps, stories, and that marvelous heart attack known as a Bloomin’ Onion that doesn’t even count because it’s apparently about as Australian as sensible portion sizes are American—was profoundly surreal.

I was farther away than I had ever been from every place that had hosted my 28 years of existence.

The world was such a big place, and yet here I was, stray pieces of sock fuzz between my toes like any other day.

* * *

Of course, such a sense of surreality only lasts so long. Eventually, some part of your physical body finds its voice and the wants of basic survival outtalk everything else. At that moment, the voice was issuing from my stomach, and it was saying, “Knock it off with that poetic drivel and feed me, dammit.”

And in no time, it was business as usual: Richard was adjusting the driver’s seat and muttering how this car couldn’t possibly have been designed for anyone over five foot nine, I was giggling at his suffering, and Australian Karen (I guess just Karen now?) was guiding us to the closest Chinese restaurant she could find.

Oh, and the weather was seriously magnificent. That part doesn’t always conform to the business as usual routine, but goodness me, this was fine. Hot, but not oppressively so. Hot in a way like an electric blanket feels when you first crawl under it on a cold night. Sunny, but not in that hellishly blinding way I’d been used to lately, namely the Dublin-In-Wintertime way where the highest the sun gets, owing to Dublin’s northerly position on the globe, is a haha-fuck-you angle that hits you precisely at eye level no matter the time of day. I remembered what travel writer Bill Bryson wrote about this city: “Perth has glorious weather, good-natured weather—the kind that sets the postman to whistling and puts a spring in the step of delivery people.”

And perhaps that is the key to my realization that the two million plus people who have settled in this remote corner of the world maybe aren’t such loonies after all.

The mystery started to unravel at the Chinese restaurant, where I couldn’t help but gush to our waiter about how good the food was after so many airplane meals. Ten minutes later, he (along with a customer picking up takeaway) was still chatting with us, curious about the details of our trip, wondering why we chose to visit Perth of all places, wishing us well, still wondering why we picked Perth, thanking us for visiting, still donning that you’re-serious-you-actually-came-to-Perth-for-Perth look of incredulity, and just generally being a nice guy.

And then there was everyone at Adventure World, detailed in the previous post.

And then there were our hosts, Sandy and Joe. We decided to try the Airbnb route since hotels in the area were fiendishly expensive.  As a result, we found ourselves with a lovely little apartment attached to their house. For less than half the price of the going hotel rate, we had a large, comfortable bed; hardwood floors; some of the best smelling coconut shampoo in existence; breakfast; an invitation to join certified instructor Sandy’s yoga class (not that we’re into that, but the offer was there); quality time with their dog Meescha; and access to what they call their “secret garden,” which was a behemoth sized covered and partially enclosed patio that was fully furnished and decorated with plants and rockwork. I think my favorite memory of Perth is sitting out there after the sun set, sipping tea, chatting with Joe, and spoiling the hell out of Meescha. The place was lit with white string lights and Chinese lanterns, creating a cozy glow that seemed to complement the subdued heat of the evening. Meescha had her eyes half closed as my nails drew light circles on the top of her head. Joe was saying that you can wear shorts year-round in Perth and that he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. No, I thought. I can see why you wouldn’t.

But it wasn’t just people that made Perth what it was.

 

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(Although they sure do write the wittiest and most thought provoking signs, it must be said.)

 

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No, I do not identify with this whatsoever, nope, no way, not I.

 

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It was the fact that the city itself was clean, vibrant, and uncluttered.

 

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And it didn’t hurt to know that I’d always have a date to bring to the park…

 

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…because, while I originally wasn’t too keen on a municipal park being the happenin’ destination, I can’t fault a city that manages to tuck so much green space into every available nook and cranny. Kings Park is the big one, but notice all the other green bits. That’s a lot of reading benches.

 

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And the parks do provide some awfully pretty views.

 

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And some rather humorous signs.  (Safety first!)

 

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But perhaps more alluring than anything, Perth has the privilege of looking out on the sublimely marbled amalgam of teals, turquoises, ceruleans, and sapphires that is the Indian Ocean.

 

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I have never seen a more perfect color in my life.

The one thing I did want to be able to say for myself regarding Perth was that I went in the Indian Ocean. Before we flew out, we drove to Fremantle, which seems to be one of those trendy beach towns whose streets are lined with alfresco cafés that serve overpriced, unfulfilling things made with organic ingredients you can’t pronounce and upscale boutiques that make you wonder just how many women are actually seeking $120 sundresses. At least, this is what I gathered from the grand total of twenty minutes we spent there since rush hour traffic lengthened the trip from Perth considerably (hey, I never said the place was perfect) and we had a plane to catch.

Most of those twenty minutes were spent making a mad dash to the beach and back before our parking meter expired, but at least three minutes were spent performing that arm flailing, high stepping schlepp meant to transport oneself across dry sand without getting it in your shoes that invariably ends with half the beach in your shoes.

 

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I mean, I couldn’t come all this way and just look at it.

 

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So I did my best to stick my hands in without bringing a tsunami to the sandy shores within my sneakers, which resulted in an awkward squat that was close enough so my palms could skim the water but far enough to infuse the whole affair with a cringeworthy note of foolishness that Richard so kindly captured for posterior…er, posterity.

I stood up, clenching and unclenching my fingers. My attempts to flick off the wet sand left by the receding waves were about as successful as trying to locate a plot in a James Joyce novel. That was okay. I didn’t mind.

* * *

I’d arrived in Perth with sock lint between my toes.

I was leaving with sand there instead.

For the rest of the day, I’d ever so often curl and flex my toes inside my sneakers, feeling the grit rolling and crunching beneath and within my socks. It was an unexpectedly fond reminder of this city, the kind of reminder that just as unexpectedly made me feel a little wistful as we drove to the airport. Much to Richard’s satisfaction, I was rather regretting now that we hadn’t taken advantage of being wide the eff awake at four a.m. the day before to go for a walk by the river as he’d suggested (instead, I’d chosen to pull the blankets determinedly over my shoulder in an attempt to triumph over jet lag and tune out the crows bleating outside, which was exceedingly difficult to do because this is Australia and nothing can be normal and so the crows sound like goats who’ve somehow gotten a hold of some helium and no, I am not making that up).

It seemed hard to believe that I had expressed my condolences to someone who had grown up here. Sometimes I should really think before I speak.

Granted, we’d spent less than 48 hours in Perth, which is certainly not enough to gain a true feel for any place, not to mention the novelty element was still there. Maybe it really is boring if you’ve lived there your whole life, but with people like this, in a climate like this, next to the most beautiful ocean I’ve ever seen, I still think I’d be mighty pleased to call this place my hometown.

At any rate, when I’m old enough to say that strolling to a bench to get my Charles Dickens on legitimately counts as exercise, I dare say I’d be rather pleased if that bench were in Perth.

Alice Springs

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“There is a peacock by the side of the pool.”

“Dafuq?!”

Well, okay, I didn’t actually say “dafuq.” Not verbally, at least. Instead, I whipped around, which is to say I swirled around because we were in the aforementioned pool, and faced Richard with my brow furrowed, eyes squinted, chin cocked to one side, and jaw slightly unhinged: the human race has created thousands of languages, but some expressions are universal.

“There is a peacock by the side of the pool. Look.”

Well by golly.

It had blue feathers. Their tips softly brushed atop the grass as it picked its way past the pool, head bobbing as though it had some Otis Redding playing in its mind—in other words, the kind of stroll that seemed to suggest this was a totally normal place for peacocks to take an evening constitutional.

In no time I was a rollicking mess of giggles, although it wasn’t so much over the presence of the peacock itself as Richard’s blasé, matter-of-fact announcement of something so absurd. Yet even more absurd was how entirely appropriate it all was. What was a peacock doing by the side of the pool? Perhaps the better question was what were two coaster enthusiasts doing in the pool, this pool, this pool that was part of a tiny blip of civilization in Australia’s coasterless—or, rather, just about anything-less—Northern Territory?

What the hell were we doing in Alice Springs?

The short answer is that we were there as a matter of inconvenient convenience for the sake of a big ass rock.

 

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This is that big ass rock. It’s sometimes called Uluru (the Aboriginal term) or Ayers Rock (the yet another example of arrogant white men trying to claim everything for themselves term) or Uluru/Ayers Rock (the let’s pretend everyone’s a winner term).

 

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Either way, it’s supposedly a Very Important big ass rock. Important enough that people willingly shed their dignity to take photos of it with iPads.

And so, when we were in the initial planning stages of this trip, I was adamant that we work in a stop to this place. Our trips never have enough nature-y type activities anyway, so if we were coming all the way to Australia, then goddammit, we had to visit this big ass rock in the middle of the outback because that is what you do when you visit Australia. How do people know you’ve checked off this continent on your worldly travels list?

 

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You have a photo on your mantlepiece of you standing in front of a hunk of orange stone, that’s how. So visiting this rock, I insisted, was necessary.

Richard did not agree.

“It’s a fucking rock,” he tried.

“It’s a fucking grand and majestic rock and I would like to see it.”

“With the flight schedules, it’s going to use up three days of our allotted time. If you really want to do it, you’re going to have to sacrifice something—maybe some Sydney time or…” His face brightened. “Oh, or maybe Merimbula.”

I scowled. “But when I think of Australia, I think of this rock. Besides, if it was good enough for Kate Middleton to pose in front of, then why can’t we?”

“Kate Middleton didn’t pay the extortionate rates for the one and only resort in the area.”

“Yeah, fine, but supposedly seeing the sunrise there is one of those things people remember for the rest of their lives.”

“Darling. It’s a fucking rock.”

And so we went, arguing back and forth and round and round, until Richard not only finally agreed, but also managed to wedge it perfectly into the itinerary. In coaster enthusiast speak, that of course translates to: no credits would be relinquished, not even the long flatlined Orphan Rocker. We’d have to cut out the tour of the Sydney Opera House we’d planned, but hey. Priorities.

Which brings us to the pool at the Alice Springs DoubleTree.

Yulara, the “town” (a population of less than 1,000 makes the word “town” seem a little too glamorous) adjacent to Uluru, is a four hour drive from Alice Springs. While it has its own airport, there are no direct flights there from Perth. The most time efficient option, therefore, was to fly into Alice Springs and then drive to Uluru. However, with just one daily flight from Perth (or maybe it was every other day; I don’t remember), a night’s stay in Alice Springs was necessary because our late afternoon arrival precluded the option of making a drive that website after website dissuaded performing after dark.

I didn’t mind. In fact, I embraced it as an opportunity to experience a teeny bit more of the country’s interior, not to mention it would force some rare leisure hours upon us (hence the time in the hotel pool that evening). Sure, it would have been preferable to avoid detours, but it was as convenient as our schedule would allow. An inconvenient convenience.

An inconvenient convenience that was about to tilt precariously in favor of the former before toppling completely the next day.

 

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It started with this. Well, the standalone car part. It was very convenient for me to giggle at the Richard-driving-this-big-boy-crisis-tank-in-the-Australian-outback-while-wearing-a-silly-stereotypical-Australian-hat part.

The experience of renting a car was our first encounter with the shameless plundering that comes with being trapped in a captive market. Folks, you are looking at a USD$700 rental car. Actually, let me put that into perspective. You are looking at an eight year old vehicle “with a large dent in its roof that suggested a previous encounter with a marauding rhinoceros” that cost $700 for a rental period of less than 48 hours.

I’ll just give you a second to react however you normally react when you hear about a heinous robbery. Done? Okay.

We wouldn’t be returning to Alice Springs. Instead, we would be flying out of Yulara’s airport, which meant a one way drop off fee. And that’s fine, that’s sort of expected in a place like this. The part where the rental car companies make off like Ocean’s Eleven is in their charging by the kilometer after surpassing each day’s meager complimentary allowance (100 kilometers in a place where freaking OUTER SPACE is sometimes closer than the next town). Uluru is 460 kilometers from Alice Springs. A lot of people make that drive. Factor in fuel, acknowledge the absence of competition in a place as desolate as the Australian interior, and you’re pretty much looking at a full fledged looting operation where the extent of your control lies in deciding whether it’ll be Avis, Hertz, or Thrifty that you let piss all over you.

But what could we do? We were stuck. Out of desperation Richard sold ourselves to Avis and we did our best to forget about how cheated we felt for consenting to such degradation.

 

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At least they thanked him.

If you could overlook the fact that ASP’s Avis desk was the springboard for the corruption that came to epitomize the Uluru experience, though, Alice Springs wasn’t a bad place.

 

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To be honest, it was quite lovely in spots.

 

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It was far greener than I expected. I’d always pictured the outback as a patchwork of reds and browns and oranges, and while there’s certainly plenty of that, I was surprised to see the green fuzz of vegetation start to creep in as I gazed upon it all from 30,000 feet. By the time we made our final descent into Alice Springs, the only color outshining the green was the deep blue of the sky. I guess that explains why there were so many riverbeds on the way into town, although not a drop remained in any of them—they were just shallow troughs with small mounds that would have been tiny islands had there been water.

 

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It was also far, far hotter than I expected. I mean, I knew it would be hot, but walking outside was like opening the pizza oven at the restaurant where I used to work. The heat blasted you with such stifling intensity that you could actually smell it in your first few breaths, a torrid wave so heavy and dry and thick that it seemed to constrict your airways.

We ventured into town that evening in search of dinner and then second dinner because Australia went 0 for 2 on the Caesar salad front. The dressing on that evening’s fare was so vile I couldn’t finish it, although judging from the appearance of the lettuce, that could have been because the recipe apparently called for a teaspoon of soil. Hence, we returned to the hotel armed with Doritos, Ritz crackers, a package of multigrain bread rolls, and a Snickers bar.

 

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(Nothing like a few fond reminders of home, you know?)

And now, darkness having fallen, we were in the pool guffawing at a peacock.

You know, I think I am doomed to always think of Alice Springs in avian themes. Before visiting, the name Alice Springs could only conjure one thing in my mind, and that was the rather tasty chicken entrée named after it at Outback. And now, a few hours later, the only thing I could really say with conviction was that bacon and cheese covered chicken seemed to have about as much to do with Alice Springs as tempura octopus hot dog bites do with Des Moines.

Not that I was surprised. Have you ever thought about the bullshit that goes into restaurant names? There’s a restaurant on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor called the Rusty Scupper. A scupper is a drain on a boat deck that draws away rainwater. If it’s rusty, then we’re talking orange tinted, metallic tasting water that either drains into the sea or joins the cesspool of bilge water in the hull. Does that sound appetizing to you? Yet tourists eat that shit up because it makes them feel oh so nautical and authentic. I can just imagine the Outback executives trying to “Australianize” their largely American menu:

“Well, we have this cheesy chicken bacon thing that’s pretty much the same as the cheesy chicken bacon things at Friday’s and Applebee’s and the like. How do we make this Australian?”

“Easy. Here, someone come stand by this map of Australia…how ’bout you, Al? Okay, now close your eyes…now put your pointer finger somewhere on the map…good, and now open your eyes. What’s it say?”

“Uhhhh…well there’s really nothing where I pointed.”

“Well, what town is the closest to your finger?”

“Let’s see…ah. Alice Springs.”

“Bingo.”

 

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The peacock continued past, its feathers just grazing the grass, its head bobbing to a soundless rhythm. It disappeared down a short slope covered in darkness and didn’t return that evening. And in that peacock, I saw us visiting Alice Springs, here long enough to only graze the surface before disappearing down the highway to the tempo of that implicit eagerness we share to keep traveling onward.

Two coaster enthusiasts and a peacock by the side of a pool in Alice Springs.

It was appropriate.

It was absurd.

It was appropriately absurd for such a transient stopover of inconvenient convenience for the sake of a big ass rock.

Uluru

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I had a good think about how to structure this post. Normally I relate things in the order they happened, but the problem with describing our visit to Uluru in that manner is that it would go something like this:

We drove to the rock. There were flies. Then we drove around the rock. It was hot. Then we drove to the auxiliary rocks. There were flies. I got hangry. Then we drove to the rock for the sunset. Then we went to bed. Then we drove to the rock for the sunrise. There were lots of flies. There were lots of flies. THERE WERE SO MANY GODDAMMED FLIES. Then we left.

Combine this with the fact that the 300+ photos I took pretty much all look the same, and this was shaping up to be one hell of a boring post.

So instead, I’ve opted for the current trend in online time wasting: a “listicle” à la Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog, etc., and I’m going to title it “10 Reasons To Consider Giving Uluru A Miss.” Except I’m not doing it this way for the sake of trying my hand at conniving clickbait just to excite your curiosity about the non-coaster content here as I drag you through these three non-park days. If I wanted to do that, I’d title it “I Visited A Rock In Australia. You Won’t Believe What It Did To Me” or “Hundreds of Tourists Fall For This Gimmick Every Year: The Shocking Truth That Aborigines Don’t Want You To Know (And It’s Not What You’d Expect).” No, I’m structuring it this way because it is, unfortunately, the most honest way to relate my experience (okay, and to hopefully keep your attention).

So. Here we go.

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10 Reasons To Consider Giving Uluru A Miss

10. The only accommodation in the area is an overpriced, underperforming craphole

Yulara is not one of those places that has a main drag lined with various independent (and predictable) chain hotels and restaurants. Instead, Ayers Rock Resort is literally the only accommodation within several hundred kilometers of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and just like the price gouging going on in the rental car business, the resort brazenly exploits its position in a captive market with rates not at all commensurate to the amenities provided. The resort hosts a range of lodging options, including campgrounds, apartments, dormitories, and a choice of three hotels. Since the sex segregated dormitories with their communal bathrooms were a bit too nightmarishly juvenile and the five star accommodation was a bit too nightmarishly expensive, we took the middle road with the Desert Gardens Hotel. For one night’s AUD$350 stay, this (supposedly) four and a half star hotel provided:

  • The chance to be just like the region’s ancient Aboriginal inhabitants as they navigated their way across the land with little to no guidance in their search for suitable habitation. Desert Gardens consists of a series of buildings, each containing a small block of rooms. The check-in attendant pointed us in the general direction we needed to go, and from there the quest was on! Dragging our suitcases behind us in the 110+ degree heat (because the Aborigines didn’t have porters, so why should this hotel offer them?), we wandered down the sidewalk for a good while, looking in vain for something, anything that resembled a hotel. No wonder we couldn’t find it. Our mistake, you see, is that we were looking for a hotel. 
  • An exterior façade done up in the rosy nostalgic style of Dilapidated Roadside Motel, complete with chipped floor tiles, old leaves pushed into corners, and a single pitiful chair outside each dirt mottled door. The only thing missing was a sign advertising air conditioning and color TV beneath some buzzing neon.
  • An interior liberally perfumed with the inspiring message that your respiratory health matters. YOU matter! Nothing like a whiff of musty dampness (and the accompanying sight of some black mold in the bathroom grout) to turn you into a wheezing champion of your own wellbeing!
  • A showerhead that performs sensational acrobatics. Who needs a functional showerhead when you can sharpen your mental and metacarpal dexterity by figuring out how to balance the showerhead so that it remains elevated and aimed at you instead of flopping downward to spray the wall behind it? It’s like Jenga but with water and more expletives! What could be more fun at five ‘o clock in the morning?
  • A spider web complete with resident spider in one corner of the ceiling. Besides being a tasteful complement to the cobwebs accenting the other corners, it validated my fears of staying on the ground floor. I squinted and stared up at it for quite some time the way you’d study a painting in an art museum, wondering if the spider was alive. At one point I stood on a chair, trying to further survey the situation without getting too close to it. Admittedly, the spider was tiny, and that plus exhaustion forced me to abandon my vigil and hope for the best. That night, I had a dream a black widow bit me (I am not making that up). In the morning, I checked and the spider was in the same spot and bodily position it had been previously. I assumed it was dead and began to wonder how long it had been there. How’s that for $350/night housekeeping?
  • The opportunity to reenact one of television’s greatest shows. If you are a fan of The Three Stooges, then my goodness, is Desert Gardens perfect for you. The nightstand was equipped with about six light switches, and we might as well have been Larry, Moe, and Curly as we tried to turn them all off. Two lights would click off as another clicked on, then one light off, two lights on, and so on and so forth until we were pretty much woop-woop-wooping and nyuk-nyuk-nyuking our way to an advanced stage of sleep deprived insanity.

Let me just reiterate that the above is considered four and a half stars.

This leads me to presume that as you downgrade the star level, the room spider grows progressively larger and less dead while the quotient of Three Stooges farcicality rises until you get that flame shooting tarantula from Have Rocket, Will Travel.

Oh dear, those poor dormitory guests :\

 

9. The food situation leaves you bewildered and HANGRY

Look, I’m not naïve enough to expect there to be a McDonald’s or KFC in a place like Yulara. And, given my picky eating habits, I knew I couldn’t count on finding an unlimited smorgasbord of Megan-compliant dishes. I did, however, expect that a place calling itself a resort would have plenty of food options available during the hours generally regarded as peak mealtimes. You know, those periods commonly known as “lunch” and “dinner.”

Apparently that was the most naïve expectation of all.

When we were driving to Yulara that morning, Richard had suddenly grinned and said, “You know, wouldn’t it be really funny if this place had a restaurant called Ayers Wok.” He said it as a statement, not a question, and he stated it several more times that day, especially as our stomachs began to growl late in the afternoon following our first excursion to the rock. We arrived at the resort to check in…

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And lo and befuckinghold.

To say we were ecstatic would be an understatement. I was bubbling with teenage girl levels of “ahhhhh omg omg lol lol” and both of us vowed to deposit our luggage as quickly as possible so we could gorge ourselves in a stir-fried puntastic revelry.

The plan was to eat quickly so as to make it back to the rock well before the 7:30 sunset. At about 5:30, we set off in the direction the sign was pointing. We promptly got lost. Perhaps it was a hunger induced mental fog that led us astray. Or maybe we got distracted thinking about our stellar accommodations.

Or maybe it was because there were no effing signs to point us in the right direction apart from the first one, whose distance from the restaurant made it entirely insufficient as the one and only navigational aid. We wandered down dirt paths, kicking up dust as we went, my steps becoming slower and slower as I realized just how hungry and drained of energy I was. The intense heat wasn’t helping and as my sweat trickled my irritation prickled. We couldn’t even ask someone because that was the other thing—the place was a veritable ghost town. For a short while, we didn’t even see any buildings. Eventually, I saw a sign for a “town square” and suggested we try in there. This proved sound judgment and our spirits lifted when we finally found it…

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…only to come crashing down in a bewildered rage that the place was closed. I looked at my watch. 5:40. What the hell was a restaurant doing closed at this hour? A look at a sign in the window revealed that Ayers Wok did business for a mere three hours a day, from 6-9.

Now, on the one hand, I could sort of understand it. The “town square” was populated by shops that, judging by the darkened windows, pulled a 9-5 business. And we were visiting in the off-season.  Yet it still didn’t make any sense why a place would wait to open until after a large proportion of guests would have left for the sunset. It wasn’t just Ayers Wok—there were other food outlets whose doors were still locked at 6:00. And if the stores did do a 9-5 business, wouldn’t it make more sense for food outlets to accommodate those hours? (and vice versa?)

We decided to wait it out and just bring takeaway with us for the sunset because we were at the point where want of food was dramatically sapping both our moods to the level of “PMS Suffering Teen Learns That Zayn Has Left One Direction.” When the doors opened at last, I was relieved to order my chicken chow mein. Finally I could quell both my stomach’s complaints and my festering annoyance at everything that had occurred during our short time at the resort.

Which is why I internally blew a gasket when the chef told me he was out of chicken.

I admit it. I gave up. I walked out, plopped down on a low stone wall, and engaged in some magnificent pouting. I had reached unprecedented levels of hangriness. I officially hated everything.

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Luckily, Richard had more sense than joining in on my irrational, impulsive behavior and devised a plan B (beef), which he was happy to share and I felt guilty for eating—and all the more so because it was the best damn chow mein I’ve had in my life.

Unfortunately, restricted hours and a vexatious lack of signage weren’t the only things about the food situation that reinforced our sense of being ripped off. I said the room was $350 for one night. In actuality, it was $424. The extra $74 was not for luxurious extras like room service or a massage. No. It was for a continental breakfast. We spent $37 each just so we could have the privilege of not starving in the morning.

It’s possible there was a restaurant somewhere in that resort that would have offered cheaper fare. But it probably wouldn’t have been open (that is, if we could have found it in the first place).

 

8. Just about everything is an upcharge

Want to extend that sense of gastronomic harassment? Join the Tali Wiru dinner, where for $325 per person you can pretend to be a pretentious culinary connoisseur amidst an ambiance peppered with the delightful sinus tickling boogie woogie that only millions of flies can deliver! Nibble at undersized portions of food you can neither pronounce nor see in the dim candlelight, listen to storytellers regale you with uplifting tales of modern political strife and Aboriginal repression, and, of course, guzzle plenty of wine to help you forget that your wallet is getting raped!

Need to dial the level of snobbery down a bit? No problem. For only $195 a person, experience the Sounds of Silence dinner, which is pretty much the same as Tali Wiru save for the fact that we make you do the work because if it’s under $200, we do it buffet style, baby!

If expensive breakfasts are more your thing, join the Desert Awakenings tour, where you can haul your dumb exploited ass out of bed at four a.m. for $173 breakfast rolls and coffee before embarking on a guided tour of things you can see for free*, like the sunrise, walking trails and the utterly pointless Cultural Centre!
* not really

For a cheaper but no less potent insult, why don’t you see if we can trick you into forking over $69 to watch the sunrise and $59 for the sunset? Sure, you could drive yourself to these places in the comfort and privacy of your own car, but if you subject yourself to the company of other gullible tourists like you for a three hour bus journey (you might get lucky and score a seat behind some Chinese tourists who will yell over everything the tour guide says!), we’ll give you a glass of sparkling wine!

Feeling creative? How about spending $69 to sit outside and sweat you ass off just for the privilege of painting some dots on a canvas for reasons you’ll only half listen to as you swat away the flies?

Or is it adrenaline you want? Let us fondle your wallet some more with skydiving, motorcycle, and helicopter adventures. A couple hundred dollars for less than an hour’s worth of fun? It’s a once in a lifetime experience, so hand over the dough if you want your life to have any meaning, motherfuckers.

Oh, you just want to enter the park and be left to your own devices? Fine, that’ll be $25 per person, please.  

* * *

You see my point? I’m not saying that the activities offered are stupid (although my descriptions of them are not that far off the mark, based on some Trip Advisor reviews). Some people really enjoy this kind of stuff, and if that’s their thing, then cool. Hell, I’d appreciate a guided tour or two so I could better appreciate what I’m seeing. The problem is that if you want anything more than the most cursory of experiences, it’ll cost you a pretty penny. The resort’s website offers a series of suggested itineraries and their estimated costs, which range from two night weekend getaways to five night luxury holidays. As of this writing, the cheapest itinerary comes in at a whopping $897 per person based on double occupancy for two nights—and that’s calculated according to non-peak season pricing.

In the interest of fairness and trying to represent both sides, however, I do understand that labor can’t be cheap in a place like this. Australia’s minimum wage is $16.87, but I imagine you’d need to promise a bit more than that to attract enough manpower in a place so remote. But still, it’s hard not to go bug-eyed when you tally the bill.

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Combine our flights, car rental, accommodation, fuel, admission into the national park, and extras like our Ayers Wok meal, and between the two of us we spent about $2000 for this place. $2000 to visit a fucking rock. Now imagine if we’d included any of these upcharges.

 

7. Irritating tourists, both present and past

I mean, this one’s to be expected. Of course there will be irritating tourists. Irritating tourists are everywhere. But at a destination that is a once in a lifetime thing for most people, there are some who go out of their way to be irritating, as we witnessed on one occasion.

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Upon arriving at the main sunset viewing area, many people chose to wait in their cars until the colors began to change sufficiently enough to warrant braving the hordes of flies in the interest of filling their memory cards with hundreds of identical pictures. With the temperature still well above 100, lots of these cars (including ours) remained running so the AC could keep flowing. After we eventually got out and stood scouting the fence line for a suitable viewing spot, I noticed one family—parents likely in their late fifties/early sixties and a daughter in her twenties—set up a table and camp chairs, sipping San Pellegrino while pretending the flies were not assaulting them. The air was filled with excited chatter as people began to scurry about looking for the best photo angle, staking out spots, setting up tripods, and conversing with family and friends.

In other words: it was not altogether quiet. It was still calm and peaceful, just not in a hushed and reverent way. And that was fine. What else could you expect in the most popular sunset viewing area?

The impossible, it seems.

I watched the daughter rise from her camp chair and sashay over to the SUV behind her whose engine was running—an SUV, I should point out, that had been parked there well before her family chose their viewing location directly in front of it. She knocked on the window and the driver rolled it down. We were standing close enough to hear the entire exchange that followed.

“I would like to ask if you’d please turn off your engine,” she said in a very thick French accent. “It’s very loud and disturbing the peace.”

There was a pause before the driver replied. “Well, yeah, I can for the time being, but I’m going to turn it back on if it gets too hot.” His accent was either American or Canadian.

At this point I would have smiled and thanked him for obliging (well, if I had the nerve to even confront someone like that in the first place). She, however, decided that this acquiescence wasn’t good enough.

“You should turn it off. This is a place meant to be enjoyed in quiet and peace. You are disturbing the cultural sacredness.”

“Okay, well, as I said, I’ll turn it off for you for now.” The guy’s tone was more clipped now, bordering on the defensive, but he pulled the key out of the ignition anyway.

That still wasn’t good enough.

By this time, we’d both turned to watch the unfolding drama.

She proceeded to lecture him on the cultural sanctity of the site in a tone so condescending and arrogant that I’m surprised the guy didn’t clock her one in the face (definitely a Canadian accent, then), a tone that inspired immature reveries of yelling “Bitch please, you want to talk about culture, I WILL TAKE YOU TO SCHOOL” as I shoved my Phi Beta Kappa credentials and anthropology honor cords down her throat. I mean, seriously. Yes, it’s a sacred cultural site. But if you wanted absolute silence, why the hell did you choose to sit in front of a noisy car and, more to the point, why the fuck did you elect to watch the sunset from the most crowded viewing area in the entire national park?

So what did we, as two mature, decorous adults do in response to such an outrageous exhibition of selfishness?

We may have “accidentally” photobombed a few of their sunset shots.

And the next morning, when they asked Richard to take a family photo of them at the sunrise, he may or may not have but most certainly did ensure his thumb covered part of the lens.

Of course, the problem with this sort of behavior is that it stems from the reality that you will likely never return to this place. The resort profits from this truth, touting how its upcharge activities offer memories that will last a lifetime. That’s how the price tag manages to fade into the periphery, at least for a short time. The downside to this YOLO mentality is that it leads to unrealistic expectations. You demand perfection from your visit—and the blame for this lies on the countless past visitors whose hyperbolic reminiscences have rendered this orange tumor in the desert into the stuff of fantasy.

Which brings us to point #6.

 

6. It’s very likely that seeing it in real life will be a disappointment after what you’ve been led to believe

And no, this won’t be true of everyone, but I bet it applies to more people than are willing to admit.

The thing about Uluru is that it’s a badge of honor. It’s a way of humble bragging about how far you have traveled (we’re talking a place so far removed from everything that many native Australians haven’t even been there). It’s like riding those obscure coaster credits—the more exotic and interesting you make them seem, the more exotic and interesting you seem (or at least you’d like to think so). The temptation to separate yourself from the masses who haven’t experienced it may be hard to pass up. Even if not-as-subtle-as-you-think showboating isn’t your intent, the rosy glow of nostalgia tends to eclipse the more mundane details, leaving them behind the curtain so that only the highlights wind up on center stage when you recount the experience. The result is that, whether advertently or inadvertently, you hype it up so much that you create an illusion that becomes the benchmark by which your listeners will interpret their own visit.

Multiply this phenomenon by the thousands of visitors who have journeyed to Uluru and told their tales over the decades, and what Bill Bryson described as “a large, inert, loaf-shaped object that you have seen photographically portrayed a thousand times already” becomes a respectable entry on that cliché we call “the bucket list” thanks to Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson making it sound cool.

The photographs, the travel accounts, the fact that Kate Middleton stood in front of it wearing a pair of totally-impractical-for-the-rugged-landscape-but-who-cares-because-it-makes-her-look-pretty-now-isn’t-that-a-hearty-dose-of-sexism-amirite wedge heels—all of it must be validated. And so you persuade your boyfriend that you have to visit it in order to authenticate your visit to Australia. And when he begrudgingly agrees, you regale him with stories of others’ visits to show him how wonderful it will be. And you worry that you haven’t allotted enough time, that you’re not doing it right, because you can only give it about 24 hours when it seems everyone is waxing poetic on their stays of two, three, even more days.

And then when you get there and see what there is to see in under three hours, you think, wait.

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Don’t get me wrong. The sight of that rock for the first time was utterly captivating…

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…especially after a four hour drive through flat, barren desert that was broken only by a stop or two to boldly play the can’t-get-any-more-stereotypically-touristy-than-that card.

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As its name suggests, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park actually consists of two major rock formations. Uluru is, of course, the headliner, but 50 km down the road is Kata Tjuta, or what I referred to as “the auxiliary rocks” since, for all intents and purposes, they seem to be regarded as a sideshow.

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(Not part of the park but still a part of it all in my mind is this, “the imposter rock.” This is Mount Conner. It appeared a good 110 km from Yulara and, for a moment, really had me thinking that Uluru’s level of big assedness was an even bigger level of big assedness than I’d thought.)

When we arrived, we drove around the base of Uluru and then made our way to Kata Tjuta. We took our time, stopping for photos along the way to capture different vantage points; getting out of the car every now and then for as long as we could endure the flies; and doing the gawking, “oh wow”ing, and wordless marveling one does in the presence of such natural splendor.

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I’d be lying if I said we didn’t appreciate the magnitude of it all, for it really was quite striking and beautiful.

But after two hours or so, we were done. We felt that we’d seen what there was to see. I was a bit surprised with myself because I’m usually the one who is rushing against the clock to take it all in, but I reminded myself that I’d still yet to see the sunrise and sunset. That was what so much of the fuss was about, that was the subject of the most passionate narratives about Uluru, that was why I was willing to skimp on sleep to catch both in the limited time we had.

You see where this is going, right?

Witnessing an Uluru sunrise/sunset was supposed to be one of those defining life experiences, one of those moments that made you feel reverent, transcendent, alive. The composition of color cast by the changing light on the rockface was made out to be some sort of magical phantasmagoria, the kind of thing that stays with you forever, the kind of thing that makes your future grandchildren discreetly roll their eyes at each other while murmuring “mmmhmmm”s at appropriate intervals as Grandma repeats her incoherent ramblings about it at every family gathering.

In other words, I was expecting to start jizzing rainbows and stardust and glitter as World of Color: Geology Edition unfolded before my rapturous eyes.

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And, well, as far as carousels of color go, if we use the Grand Carousel at Knoebels to represent what I was expecting…

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…then the sunset and sunrise would be equivalent to, say, Six Flags Great America’s Columbia Carousel: unique* in appearance and quite lovely to look at, but lacking the totality and perfection that only hand carved horses, thundering German organs, and brass rings can provide.

*yes, yes, I know there’s technically another one, but when I say unique, I mean that SFGAm’s sits majestically at the head of a beautiful pool lined with trees and flowers, whereas the other sits at the head of the ocean of excrement that is California’s Great America.  Big difference.  

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None of this is to say it wasn’t impressive.

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The sunset slowly deepened the orange into burnt umber.

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As the last glints of the sun gave way to dusk, the rock turned brown and took on a matte effect. It was as though it contained some sort of internal dimmer switch that had started at full brightness but was now almost dialed back to the off position.

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Once the switch was turned all the way down, Uluru became a hulking splotch of darkness against the sky, similar to the way the Titanic iceberg has been described.

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The sunrise was more dramatic.

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Against the dull, gray light of dawn the rock was a muted brown block of shadows…

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…that seemed to borrow color from the sky as the first hues of pink seeped westward until it had dyed itself a deep red.

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When the first rays of light hit it, I began to get a sense of why this event has generated so much fervor: the rock glowed. Yes. Glowed. Glowed because Uluru’s characteristic orange tint didn’t pop all at once but rather turned on in bits and pieces depending on how the light hit it.

The sun’s low angle kept many shadows intact, but it also speckled the rock with these glimmering bits that looked like some giant glowstick had leaked onto it.

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In the distance, Kata Tjuta was a similarly luminous set of embers.

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The sun rose higher, dabbing more orange onto the rock and gradually unzipping the shadows from the trees in a way that tempted me to break into song about some anthropomorphic lions.

Yes, it was beautiful. Yes, it was a unique experience. No, I’m not sorry for getting that song stuck in your head.

But it wasn’t a euphoric, soul nurturing, nirvana moment whose absence from the trip would have rendered me undeserving of that Australia stamp in my passport.

It was a sunrise over a pretty rock.

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Kind of like this one.

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Or this one. (Well, minus the rock part.) (Look, I’m really struggling here to make this have more than just orange rock photos. Can you see now why I didn’t want to document this chronologically?)

And in the end, for as much as I worried about not having enough time to fully immerse ourselves within the Uluru experience, we actually left for the airport early.

It marked the moment we were finally in mutual agreement about this place.

 

5. If you’re looking for science, you’ve come to the wrong place

The ultimate reason why Uluru fascinates visitors—the reason it was noticed in the first place, the reason it has inspired such voluminous mythology among the Anangu, the reason it occupies gigabytes of memory card space the world over, the reason it will continue to serve as a tourism cash cow—is simple:

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It’s a big ass rock.

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It’s one hell of a big ass rock.

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It’s one hell of a big ass rock in the middle of nowhere, a monolith whose stark contrast to the flatness surrounding it would be as pronounced as the common coaster enthusiast standing in a bevy of sorority girls, were such a thing possible in the real world. In other words, it sticks out a bit. It’s huge. It’s the geological equivalent of one of those medical abnormality shows on TLC (“New episodes of ‘My 3.3 km² Life’ return this Tuesday at 10/9 central!”).

And so, just as you’d look at a ninety pound tumor or a fetus in fetu and ponder how does that happen?, the first question that naturally arises when you look at this humongous orange lump is: How did it get there?

Well, with all the experience and knowledge I gained from visiting the national park specifically designed to educate visitors on the significance of this natural wonder, here is what I learned in regards to that question:

Nothing.

Now, I know Uluru is synonymous with embellishment and exaggeration, but I swear I am not overstating (or would that be understating?) this. To prove it: I fucking hate when people use the term “literally” to describe something figuratively. Therefore, know that I am being completely serious when I say: I learned literally nothing about Uluru’s origins; hell, I learned literally nothing about the site’s geology. This is not because I didn’t bother to seek answers, but rather because there is literally nothing there to provide those answers.

That’s right. There is nothing to inform visitors about the topographical provenance of one of the world’s most famous topographical formations at the actual location of said famous topographical formation.

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Which is entirely unacceptable when it was the raw, corporeal, earthly immensity of the thing that got your attention—and everyone else’s—in the first place.

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Having looked it up after visiting, I can tell you that Uluru and Kata Tjuta are inselbergs—erosion-resistant rocks left after millions of years of incredible geologic forces and the erosion of everything else around them. It’s an overly simplistic explanation, but the fact that I needed to consult Professor Google for it speaks to the failure of the site itself in providing even the most elementary of scientific facts, the sort of facts you expect to learn at a visitors’ center from a ten minute introductory film that’s narrated by a British guy and condenses millions of years of geologic events into a few handy computer animations. Not that your average visitors’ center is going to make you an expert on its subject matter in one afternoon, but you can usually walk away with an understanding of the basics.

That is, if the place you’re visiting has that average sort of visitors’ center. I suppose I took it for granted that a location so famous would have a few air conditioned rooms of multilingual informational placards, maps on touchscreens, video nooks, and of course the requisite exit through the gift shop.

It didn’t.

Instead, the closest thing Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park has to a visitors’ center is the Cultural Center…oops, wait, I mean “Centre” because this isn’t America.

And yet the thing is, even after visiting that I’m still somewhat in the dark about the intricacies of this place.

And that’s because I’m not allowed to know.

 

4. The Cultural Centre is cryptic and patronizing

We all have THAT Facebook friend. You know, the one who posts enigmatic statuses designed to lure their friends into asking for clarification, only to snub them with more passive aggressiveness when they do:chat

By deliberately baiting a public online social setting with this sort of suspenseful ambiguity only to play it off coyly when pressed for more details, the soon-to-be-unfriended Kimberly is, of course, an attention seeking, self indulgent brat. She manipulates and teases because mysteriousness not only breeds interest, but also cultivates an air of superiority. Dropping hints but withholding full disclosure gives her an impression of control and dominance. Stringing her beguiled followers along sends the message that she has an interesting story but not everyone is entitled to hear it. In other words, she uses subtle condescension to fabricate a sense of self importance.

Now imagine if that attitude was the mission statement of a museum, and you have the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre.

The traditional landowners of Uluru and Kata Tjuta are the Anangu, who have been in the area some ten thousand plus years, although some archaeological evidence suggests that humans have inhabited the area for as long as thirty thousand years. Whatever the number, it’s ample time for the rocks to have taken on a prominent role in Anangu culture. It comes as no surprise that they are embedded within a rich mosaic of myths, legends and lore, from creation stories to fantastical tales of ancestral beings. Uluru’s existence and many of its physical features are explained in terms of tjukurpa, the Aboriginal worldview that describes the energy uniting people with each other, the land, and the past. Tjukurpa is the root of Anangu heritage: it is the way in which they interpret the physical world as well as the basis of social conduct, custom, and tradition. Therefore, Uluru, as an embodiment of it, is a place of inimitable spiritual and holy significance.

And that…well, that’s pretty much all I know. Oh wait! There’s a story about a snake in there somewhere. Okay. Now that’s everything I know, because that’s as much as Kimberly was willing to divulge.

How about elaborating a little more on the specific ways in which you guys honor Uluru? Like, what are your rituals like? Can you even concentrate on holiness in a place where nothing seems more sacred than a $2.99 fly swatter from Target? What’s day to day life like, living in the shadow of this thing? Can you try to describe it so I can understand it from your point of view and hopefully come away from this place with a deeper respect and appreciation of it all?

No. Tough shit. The Cultural Centre doesn’t want to talk about it right now.

Before I go further, I want to make it very clear that I am not belittling the culture of the Anangu people. I did not subject myself to thousands of dollars of student loan debt for a piece of paper that signifies my capacity to hold more than a passing interest in the kinship charts of some clan in Papua New Guinea no one’s ever heard of only to revert right back to some good old fashioned Western ethnocentrism at the first sign of opposition to my polite curiosity.

What I am criticizing, however, are the Cultural Centre’s irritatingly gratuitous reminders that I am not entitled to collect more knowledge of that culture.

Oddly enough, while writing the last bit I discovered that a brief geological history about Uluru actually does exist on none other than the resort’s official website. Also appearing on the page is the following: “The Anangu people know how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed. This knowledge comes from the Tjukurpa, the stories and lore that explain and govern Anangu life. But much of it, particularly about Kata Tjuta, is sacred and cannot be presented here” (emphasis mine). And okay, I would never try to circumvent an inviolable cultural code like this mandate for secrecy, but it is quite disturbing that the stuff about geology—interesting information, largely objective information—apparently wasn’t important enough to make it past the HTML stage, while the declaration of withheld information is present on almost every placard in the Cultural Centre.

From mythology to descriptions of food gathering, the same admonition is repeated over and over and over again: the Anangu code of law and ethics prevents disclosing this bit of information to outsiders, it’s against Anangu beliefs to describe that custom to outsiders, it is disrespectful to relate this initiation ritual to outsiders, etc.

I don’t have a problem with the Anangu wishing to retain some exclusivity and privacy over their traditions. I get that, I respect that. But when a Cultural Centre reminds its visitors with almost fanatical frequency that they are not privileged to see the whole picture, it comes off as obnoxious and arrogant—and all the more so considering the utter needlessness of it all. The placards would be no less informative without the constant memos. Instead, their persistent presence renders the texts in the Cultural Centre vaingloriously formulaic:

  1. Identify a cultural element
  2. Explain a thing or two about it
  3. Declare there’s so much more to it than can be lawfully discussed
  4. Remind readers that it’s their alien status that is responsible for curbing the flow of information

Dropping hints with no intention of expounding on them adds nothing of substance or value, so why bother? Imagine working your way through this place, encountering steps three and four over and over again. Sure starts to resemble the sort of deliberately attention seeking teasing found in the subtext of THAT Facebook friend’s status, doesn’t it?

Kimberly P: Guys, I had a bad day and I’m upset about some things, but I’m not going to tell you why or what they are. I’m just going to hint at it publicly because as long as you know that I know something you don’t know, you’ll think I’m interesting and special. More interesting and special than you.

Cultural Centre: Visitors, there’s this ritual the Anangu perform every February to commemorate the invention of aerosol bug spray. It’s really, really fascinating but we’re not going to tell you why, and it has a totally killer back story too, but we’re not going to tell you what that’s all about, either. We’re just going to hint at it publicly because as long as you know that we know something you don’t know, you’ll be reminded of your place, which is less interesting and special than ours.

Again, I am not taking issue with the fact that there will forever be parts of Aboriginal culture inaccessible to the outsider. My point is that the Cultural Centre, rather than capitalizing on the education it can offer, be it cultural or scientific, seems more concerned with ensuring that the lines of division and segregation between natives and visitors are clearly marked. The endless barrage of reminders that we outsiders are not allowed in on the secrets at the very same time intimations of those secrets are dangled before us—like holding a piece of lunch meat just past a dog’s reach—is borderline insulting.

Whether intentional or not, the compulsively repetitive affirmations of staggered privilege leave the Cultural Centre throbbing with a vibe that is smug, alienating, patronizing—and ultimately unwelcoming.

P.S. Not to mention it doesn’t have air conditioning. So yeah. That.

 

3. What’s the deal with the climb?…and other mixed signals

“Aboriginal traditional owners would prefer visitors not to climb Uluru.”

“The climb is physically demanding. Do not attempt if you have high or low blood pressure, heart problems, breathing problems, a fear of heights, or you are not reasonably fit.”

“We Don’t Climb”

“Persons are permitted to climb and remain on Uluru during the hours of sunrise to sunset only.”

“That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing. You shouldn’t climb.”

“If you choose to climb, we ask that you do so safely.”

***

Uh, sure, whatever you say.

Climbing Uluru has long been a controversial and sensitive subject. The Anangu consider it deeply offensive and disrespectful. Tourists who climb, they argue, are missing the point of the site entirely: to view Uluru as little more than a challenging physical workout is to pretty much shove a middle finger in the face of tjukurpa—in other words, to brazenly insult everything that makes Uluru what it is. And frankly, that should be all you need to hear. After all, they are the owners of the land, and you sure wouldn’t go scaling the walls of the Sistine Chapel for the sake of a few sweet Instagrams or sneak to the roof of the Hagia Sophia just to post on some Facebook fitness app how many calories you burned doing it*, would you?

*We all have THAT Facebook friend, too.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough for some people, and decades of trekking Timberlands and Merrells have worn thin white lines into Uluru’s ochre sides, among other unsavory remains (i.e., poop. No plumbing or septic systems up there, which I’m sure you find just shocking). And yet is it fair to entirely fault these hikers when, juxtaposed with Anangu requests, there are just as many notices advising how to climb safely along with the permitted times to do it?

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And I do mean literally juxtaposed. This is the map we were given when we first entered the park. Similar contradictions are found on the signs at Uluru’s base as well as numerous websites, including the official ones. There’s even a handrail running up the rock, for Christ’s sake.

Perhaps, however, these mixed messages are symptoms of a wider syndrome.

Much of my time at Uluru, something felt…off. It wasn’t an overpowering sensation, but it was definitely there. It was there when a park ranger sternly instructed us to move along when we pulled over on Uluru’s loop road for photographs. It was certainly there at the Cultural Centre as we were constantly reminded of our foreign status. It was there as we realized that even what could be shared with us still seemed hazy and obscure owing to the decontextualized manner in which it was presented. And it was there in the mixed messages regarding the climb.

You cannot view the rock from any angle you wish, you cannot know the whole story, you cannot fully comprehend what is shared, you theoretically cannot climb the rock. You cannot customize your visit. You must stick to the path. Stay in your zone. Remember your place:

You do not and will never completely belong here. You are just a source of income.

And I think it is that tension between cultural sanctity and economic dependence that generated the queer feeling I had. Something didn’t feel right because I didn’t feel welcome. There I was at an internationally renowned touristy hotspot, yet the resort’s taglines to “touch the silence” and “hear the land” were impossible given the perpetual murmur of aloofness permeating the place, a murmur that told me I was, ultimately, an intruder—but I’d be tolerated so long as I kept my dollar sign costume on.

Which would make me feel rather indignant if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the truth.

Of course I was intruding. All tourists are intruding. Uluru is hallowed ground for the Anangu and with so many aspects of it off limits to nonindigenous people, it’s fairly obvious that it never would have opened to tourists had the Anangu been powerful enough to thwart it. As is all too often the case, however, the white man got his way and what was once the exclusive domain of those who were there first has become one of Australia’s most recognized and profitable landmarks.

I don’t pretend to know all the intricacies of economic development in Aboriginal communities, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the revenue generated from Uluru tourism is a significant source of funding for the nearby Aboriginal community Mutitjulu, which is no small thing when poverty tends to run rampant in many, if not most, Aboriginal societies. Compound that with disputes between Aborigines and non-Aborigines regarding the dispersal of those resources, add in the history of conflict between those two groups over the management of the site, and there can be little doubt that Uluru, as a national park, is hardly a seamless operation. For the Anangu, it seems the result is an uneasy relationship between cultural sanctity and economic dependence: an everlasting battle between preserving and protecting their heritage from the people who have commercialized it, while at the same time acquiescing to those very same people to continue commercializing it in the interest of financial relief.

While it’s not as bad as it could be—Uluru is, thankfully, not one of those repulsive scenes where vendors will chase and bully you into buying kitschy souvenirs all the way down the street to a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville—we, as tourists, are still actively devaluing Anangu culture by allocating their holy site for our own entertainment. Yet we are needed. Or rather, our dollars are needed.

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One manifestation of this friction? The conflicting messages regarding the climb. While numerous efforts have been made to shutter it permanently, none have been successful. I suspect that’s because there are fears that its closure might repel visitors and lead to diminished profits (an argument that likely reflects more on the power imbalance between indigenous and nonindigenous members of management than on the unpleasant reality of Aboriginal economic development).

Ultimately, it is this discord that must explain why non-Aboriginal folk will never be able to appreciate the full beauty of Uluru. It’s why we are relegated to certain spots for photography and viewing. It’s why a visit leaves you intimately acquainted with your credit limit. It’s why we are barred from ever knowing the full back story. It’s why we are reminded, time and time and time and time again, of our place and that we may not deviate from it. At the heart of it, we are unwelcome. We were never meant to come here.

Perhaps, then, I have no right to bitch about how expensive the whole affair is, how the Cultural Centre’s tone is so blatantly condescending, how the place seems determined to retain a semblance of obscurity, how there is such a dearth of information on the site’s geologic history. Perhaps it’s wrong to gripe about its unwarranted hype and annoying tourists. That’s not what this place is about. After all, what right do I have to complain about a place I never should have been able to visit anyway? It’s like showing up to a party uninvited and then complaining that the host didn’t offer enough food.

Yet we are invited. We party crashing tourists do serve a purpose. If we are choosing to spend our money, shouldn’t we have a right to something that’s better than lukewarm hospitality at best and outright hostility at worst? Or is it disrespectful to even entertain that thought? If there are signs condoning and condemning the climb, what else is ambiguous territory? Are we allowed or aren’t we? What’s right and what’s wrong? Seriously, what is the deal?

The questions are endless, awkward, and rhetorical, and so we are left with mixed messages undergirded by resentment, confusion, reluctance, guilt, and antagonism. It’s an ever present tension where only one theme is clear: we are tolerated, but only at arm’s distance. Close enough to reach the wallet, but not close enough to be let in. We will always, always be intruders.

And we will always, always be reminded of it.

 

2. I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHERFUCKING FLIES AT THIS MOTHERFUCKING ROCK

Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt if I kill a bug (and regret if it happens to be a stink bug). To prevent this, I will actually go and procure a cup and index card to save one scuttling up the wall, using every last ounce of rationality and willpower to fend off the very persuasive expostulations of the creepy crawlies encouraging me toward the contrary (well, after the prerequisite round of shrieking and leaping, of course). Fetching said lifesaving devices generally requires taking my eyes off the bug, which is how you know that I am truly dedicated to the cause. The lifesaving process then unfolds in the following order:

  1. I take a few deep breaths of the sort you might recommend to a woman in labor.
  2. I guide the cup toward the wall the way a lion stalks its prey—slowwwwly, slowwwwly, then REALLYFASTJUMPPOUNCEAMBUSHWHOA.
  3. The bug and I squirm in unison. The bug is squirming because it realizes it’s trapped; I am squirming because the bug is squirming and I am convinced that it’s about to go all Incredible Hulk on me at any second.
  4. This is the leap of faith step, where I hope the bug won’t suddenly get smart and dart out of its entrapment in the millisecond it takes to tilt the cup away from the wall in order to slide the index card beneath it.
  5. Once the index card is positioned to entirely cover the circumference of the cup rim, I gently pull the cup back from the wall with my palm pressed firmly against the index card. One does not take chances with a .007 inch thick bulwark.
  6. Upon completion of this step, known formally as The Usain Bolt, the bug will have been deposited outdoors.
  7. I give myself a pat on the back, knowing that I have just saved a poor, innocent creature from dying an undignified indoor death so that it may have a chance to die a proper outdoor death, which will probably happen within a couple of minutes if it happens to be winter.

My point here is that it takes a bit of effort, terror, and lunacy to save a bug rather than just squashing it. But I do it anyway because sometimes my conscience is remarkably loud, loud enough to drown out even Richard’s uproarious laughter like that time I reenacted being on one of those Slingshot rides when he calmly observed there was a spider crawling right next to my head.

At Uluru, I became a serial killer.

You may have noticed my various mentions of flies in this post. There was a postcard in the Yulara Shell station that said something along the lines of “Australia: One opera house, one rock, one barrier reef, and 1,000,000,000,000,000 flies.” I don’t know where in Australia that postcard’s creator got that number, but it clearly wasn’t at Uluru because he would’ve needed at least fifteen more zeroes to accurately convey the diptera situation there. Possibly more.

I knew it was going to be hot in the Australian interior. Every time I opened the car door, I was greeted with the same heavy, stifling blast that had taken my breath away in Alice Springs. I never anticipated, however, that I wouldn’t owe my relief on returning to the car solely to its freon supply. No, that hideous Misubishi Pajero served a greater purpose: it was our refuge, our safe area, our hideaway from the relentless onslaught of hundreds of tinnily buzzing flies that flocked to every millimeter of exposed skin with the wretched ferocity of rednecks stampeding a Walmart Black Friday sale and the unprecedented tenacity of Kay Burley parading all the stereotypes that keep misogyny alive and well.

The way they descended on us, you would have thought we were walking pheromone traps. They flitted around my face, and no matter how many times I batted them away, they returned, oblivious and unperturbed. Even when I got to the point where I was waving my arms in front of my face like windshield wipers, they managed to duck and whiz and sweep into whatever opening they could find. They pranced and strutted across the rims and lenses of my glasses, an evil irony given that the frames are from the Project Runway line. My eyelids were the counters from which dozens of proboscis straws sucked up eye fluid smoothies with such gusto that you would have thought it was BOGO day down at the Cornea Coolers Juice Bar. They cavorted in my ear canals with all the merriment and debauchery of a medieval orgy. They hovered in my nostrils, my forceful exhalations apparently the fly equivalent to tourists standing in the blast from a 747 at St. Maarten’s famous airport.

They frolicked and we groused.
They tickled and we despaired.
They heckled and we seethed.
They taunted and we said, fuck this.

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As I slammed the car door following an aborted attempt to enjoy the rock’s scenery and petroglyphs from up close, I cursed as I realized about a dozen of the little fuckers had followed me and were now jiving in aimless squiggles against the window. I lowered it and successfully shooed some away, but a few stragglers remained. I watched one continue its languid dance, a black dot of irritation, a reminder of all the other annoyances that had marked our short visit—the price gouging, the shitty hotel, the hostility, the conceitedness, the rude tourists, and all of this for a rock, a rock!—and I did it. I said the line:

“Enough is enough!” And I reached out my pointer finger and stabbed the fly, stabbed it hard, stabbed it and pressed the flesh of my finger into it so I could feel its body squash solidly against the glass. The mangled corpse stuck to me as I pulled away. I delightfully admired my handiwork before flicking it out the window.

I jabbed at another one. “I have had it!” I cried, taking another jab. “With these MOTHERFUCKING FLIES!” Another jab. “At this MOTHERFUCKING ROCK!” Jab. Jab. Jab.

With each jab, my satisfaction ballooned. Each jab was vindication. Revenge. Rebellion. Triumph. Outright, utter glee. I mirthfully murdered the rest of the stragglers, letting out a noise between a chuckle and a growl as each body came away crumpled in a tiny wine colored gloop of fly guts.

It was finally a victory. Not a big one. A pitifully small one, actually. But it was a victory.

I’ll take my straitjacket purple and polka dotted, please.

* * *

At this point you may be thinking one or two things:

  1. Megan, for fuck’s sake, can’t you think of anything positive to say?
  2. Megan, for fuck’s sake, haven’t you ever heard of brevity?

In response:

1)  Guys, let’s be realistic. I am female. The art of complaining is hardwired into my genetic code. But okay, no, not everything about Uluru was negative. In no particular order:

  • Ayers Wok really did serve the best goddamn chow mein I have had in my life. It was greasy, fatty—the kind of noodles that leave a sheen on the fork no matter how many times you try to lick it clean. Also, the chef there was extremely friendly. I honestly feel awful for letting my hangriness get the better of me.
  • Most of the tourists we encountered were fine. At the sunrise, I met a father and daughter who were roadtripping from Tasmania up to Darwin. They were lovely to talk with—the father had visited Uluru thirty years prior and had even climbed it, which certainly sparked some curiosity on my end. They were abuzz with interest about Ireland and the U.S., as well as our onward travel plans in their home country. It was the kind of conversation that reminded you that people like Miss Sacred San Pellegrino are the exception, not the norm.
  • The park rangers are really serious about animal welfare. They even give out a number to call if you see injured wildlife. The afternoon we arrived, I spotted two dingoes in one of the parking lots looking hot and miserable as hell. We stopped by the Cultural Centre where I notified a park ranger, who asked me lots of questions and pulled up photos of dingoes to make sure that was what I had seen. He told me they were most likely pets from neighboring Mutitjulu and not to worry because they knew where to find water. He thanked me for my concern, and it was a genuine thank you.
  • I expanded my fashion horizons. Never has the bulky, ungainly, grim reaperish mesh of a mosquito hat looked more seductive.
  • The breakfast may have been horribly overpriced, but the host who greeted and seated us was one of the friendliest, smiliest, bubbliest people I have ever met. I kind of wanted to pinch his cheeks, he was so cute. Between that and my ability to wax poetic on the experience of this place, I am going to make a terrific old lady.
  • Playing shower Jenga and Three Stooges in the hotel is the stuff the best vacation memories are made of. Just don’t remind us that we lost more money playing than some people lose in Vegas.
  • I did gain some idea of the importance of Uluru to the Anangu. I’ll never get the full picture, and I still wish they presented it differently, but I did learn something. And for the approximately 4.8 seconds I was able to admire the petroglyphs before the flies presented me with an alternate agenda, I was in awe. It’s one thing to see that kind of thing in textbooks, but another thing entirely to see it in person and to be in the presence of something so old. Plus, the flies did make it so I remained animated and alert, so much so that even if Lewis Binford had been there describing the significance of the petroglyphs in relation to the hypothetico-deductive model and processual archaeological theory, I would have remained lively. For anyone acquainted with Binford’s work, you will understand that this is the highest possible praise I could ever give him. For the rest of you who aren’t in the know on the always hot topic of anthropology’s who’s who, which I assume is somewhere in the region of 100% of you, Binford was…well, he was no Dos Equis man, let’s put it that way.
  • The rock is pretty cool to see in person. And the sunrise and sunset are pretty. Not life changing pretty, but prettier than the sunrise over rusty shipping crates with accompanying dead fish stench I get to enjoy over Dublin Port on the way to work every morning.

I will admit that, on the whole, I am glad to have seen it—but only because I would have been forever wondering if I hadn’t. All the vicarious experiences in the world will never match up to the real thing; even a post like this wouldn’t have been enough to deter me from visiting.  I always want to form my own judgment and I know that if we’d passed it up, I would have regretted it. I still encourage you to go if you are set on it. Your experience won’t be my experience.  I hope it’s a better experience.  But if you are having any doubts whatsoever as to whether it’s worth it, then I would strongly urge you to spend your time (and money) elsewhere because, knowing what I know now, well… 

2)  Yes. Watch.

At the end of the day, Richard may have been right all along:

 

1. It’s a fucking rock.

Sydney

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I’ve long had a thing for Sydney. Call it a curiosity, call it a fascination, call it whatever you’d call the act of having a crush on a city—however you describe it, Sydney has held a piece of my mind captive ever since NBC spent two weeks in September 2000 broadcasting sweeping panoramas of its harbor before cutting to sweeping panoramas of Bob Costas’s doleful eyes. Without any distractions like the pinkeye of his 2014 Sochi coverage that rendered his conjunctivas more colorful than anything Jason Brown wore in the figure skating finals, my thoughts would invariably drift back to the dazzling images of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.

 

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The Opera House got me especially. It was just so beautiful, the way all those triangles rose like perfect white wings over the deep blue water. The Opera House was so different from any building I’d seen, and being so far away only added to its exotic appeal. To me, those triangles were more than just an icon of Sydney—they were Sydney. And hence, Sydney became synonymous with splendor, style, aplomb. Even the name seemed to emanate an enviable air of savoir vivre. You know you’re onto something special when you pull out a pretentious French term to describe it. I was enthralled.

But I could only admire it from afar.

So Sydney became one of the cool kids. Sydney was the honor roll cheerleader who sat at the popular lunch table. Sydney always looked put together and unruffled. Sydney was charming, sophisticated, glamorous—in other words, pretty much everything I wasn’t. Living in Pennsylvania, I was sitting about as far away from the popular table as you could get. I was with all the other socially awkward kids who remained unnoticed and unsolicited.

Sydney was a world away, both literally and figuratively.

But then, as often happens in the movies, there comes a night when the dynamic changes. The outgoing, popular character admits the company of the shy outsider. It’s a fleeting acceptance, usually because it’s helped along by  okay, maybe kind of dependent on  oh who the hell are we kidding, this kind of thing simply does not happen in real life without bounteous amounts of alcohol, but it happens. For one night, the door opens. For one night, the outsider gets to see what it’s like to be at the center of the action, to be where everyone wants to be, to be with all the cool kids, to be (or at least pretend to be) one of the cool kids.

And so it was that for one night, I got to hang out in Sydney. For one night, I got to see the sights that had held my imagination spellbound for nearly fifteen years. It was just one night, because we are coaster enthusiasts who design itineraries that might be, shall we say, less than ideal for your average Fodor’s wielding tourist, but it was one night when I was finally where I’d envisaged my first foray into the country would take me (because let’s be honest, no one starts describing their wish to see Australia with “Gee whiz, I can’t wait to someday visit the municipal parks of Perth! I sure am longing to see some lichens!”). And even though I’ve matured to the stage where I recognize the totality of a country’s essence is not concentrated within a few tons of concrete and steel (Uluru had certainly been a lesson in the dangers of that sort of thinking), I still couldn’t help but feel gleeful that I was finally realizing a dream and seeing in person the most iconic landmarks not just in Sydney, but in the country. If there was ever a night to feel like I was finally invited to the hip, happenin’ spot…

 

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…(a feeling made all the more potent considering I’d just a few hours earlier departed from the double gate and lone baggage belt of Ayers Rock Airport where a piece of common receipt roll paper served as a boarding pass)…

 

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…(guys, seriously, AYQ was adorable. Doesn’t it look like a retirement home or something? I can just imagine those buses filled with Atlantic City-bound seniors eagerly anticipating slot machines and buffets and Joey Dee and the Starliters…

 

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…or at least I could were it not for the fact that there was a big ass A320 parked behind the building)…

 

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…and that I was so purely and unequivocally in Australia, then this was it.

We touched down in Sydney under dreary, cloudy skies. There was rain in the forecast for the evening, but the brief glimpse I got of the Opera House from the plane was enough to buoy my spirits and discourage dwelling on the weather. Still, I took the precaution to bring a sweatshirt since the darkened skies gave the illusion of chilliness and besides, it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared in the event of encountering air conditioning set to the finger icicling, nipple hardening sort listed on some thermostats as the Every American Office Building Ever So Much For Wearing Short Sleeves In July setting. I usually bring an extra layer wherever I go and I will usually wind up wearing it, which once prompted a high school classmate to remark that I had “a very grandmotherly nature” about me.

I tell you this to remind you that I’ve never been one of the cool kids.

As such, I set off with Richard, filled with the anticipation and trepidation that comes with setting foot for the first time in a city that has awed you for so long that it feels, in a way, like meeting a celebrity. And celebrities are the cool kids. I had on glasses, my hair was rolled back in a librarian bun, and I was wearing a sweatshirt that said Anthropology: that’s where the big money is.

This was basically like Fanny Price at a house party thrown by Regina George.

But even at this early stage in the evening, Sydney was a host already a little tipsy and in warm spirits. We emerged from the metro into a sultry hum, the humidity from the day’s earlier thunderstorms lending an atmosphere of casual affability to a nightlife already in full swing. My sweatshirt came off and thanks to our power walking to meet a friend of Richard’s for dinner, I arrived at the restaurant swimming in sweat and regret that I had worn denim Bermuda shorts, which might as well have been made of saran wrap at this point.

Still, even if my fashion choices had been on point, there was no way I was ever going to top the guy I saw wearing a t-shirt that read SMOKE METH AND HAIL SATAN.

 

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One Hard Rock meal later (oh, and if anyone wishes to bemoan our lack of “cultured” food choices, Momofuk-you), I had just about unstuck my thighs. I had refueled, rejuvenated, and probably left Richard’s friend horrified with my somewhat less than refined method of eating a grilled chicken sandwich, which requires various grotesque facial contortions and the use of about fifteen napkins if done properly.

 

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It was dark, the lights had come on, and I was finally here. I was finally invited to the party. I was finally a part of it all.

It was time to imbibe this city with wild abandon.

There is something so profoundly surreal about finally seeing with your own eyes something that you have seen hundreds of times, but always through someone else’s camera lens. That first look, that instantaneous transition from the vicarious to the real tends to feel almost unreal, in that I still can’t quite believe my eyes, and were the vision to suddenly disappear, I wouldn’t necessarily feel disappointed because I still wouldn’t be convinced that I’d really seen it.

Exiting the Circular Quay metro station was a bewildering affair. Richard knew where he was going, which was a relief because my mind was a game of JezzBall, my thoughts eluding corral as they zipped between getting my bearings, trying to remain composed amidst the sudden surge of people, and incessantly thinking whereisitwhereisitwhereisitwhereisit. We surfaced from the hordes waiting for ferries, walked past accommodations whose price is far scarier to dream about than anything Freddy Krueger could ever conjure, made a right turn and then…there it was.

 

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There it was.

There was Sydney. This was it. This was Sydney. I was finally in Sydney.

It was like that moment in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Clark first lays his eyes on the Griswold family Christmas tree.

It seemed a show had recently let out. A few dozen formally attired people were making their way down the stairs. Hundreds more spilled out from the pubs and were sitting with lipstick stained wine glasses, foamy pints and deep fried bar snacks at the tables set up along the quay. We hastily zigzagged amongst the bustle until I pulled Richard aside. “Hang on,” I said.

 

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I knelt on the bench lining the wall. Across the water, the Harbour Bridge looked every bit as mighty and dominating as 52,800 tonnes of steel and six million rivets should. The evening illumination highlighted the trusses silver and the pylons gold. In a spotlight at the apex were a pair of Australian flags, symmetrically positioned with a red aircraft warning light between them, whose every flutter asserted pride, ownership, and proof that once again, pretty much every country uses flags more tastefully than America.

I turned around toward the Opera House, then back to the bridge, then to the Opera House again. Between the two was boisterous chatter, inebriated laughter, and ferries with decks rimmed in white light carrying it all across the harbor and back, again and again. And then farther back, of course, there was a glob of white that was Luna Park’s evening illumination. No matter how many times I gazed at the scene, it still felt unreal.

But then I looked back and saw Richard’s all too real impatient expression and that was enough to convince me that a) this was really happening and b) that I had better hurry up if I wanted it to keep happening because Richard—who has never been a night owl at the best of times, let alone at the end of a long day like this one—has this disconcerting tendency to go from being chipper and awake to a crotchety sleepwalker in a matter of zeptoseconds. Now, in his defense, I make the same transition (and don’t we all), just with far less efficiency. It’s more of a gradual slide from wakefulness to something that can best be described as a somnolent hormonal crackpot, delivered with the kind of gusto that all aspiring actors would do well to observe if they wanted some pointers on how to convincingly play a villain whose demise is cause for celebration. At any rate, I hardly wanted this evening to suddenly detonate into a battle of wits against Oscar the Grouch or worse, between two Oscar the Grouches.

So on we went toward the Opera House. Originally our itinerary had called for a guided tour of it, but I had to settle for a stroll around its exterior owing to foolish coaster enthusiast priorities. This was okay. After all, it was the exterior that had always been more intriguing anyway.

 

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And it remained so, even though seeing it in person risked an outcome similar to Uluru’s. In this case, however, reality could not destroy the flawless image of it I had in my head. If anything, it only strengthened it. To be in its presence, to see it up close—to see that the seemingly smooth surface of its shells was actually a series of tiles with thick, black, geometrically patterned grout separations between them…

 

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…and to peer into the shells, to see the gently arcing fan of ribs supporting them, to see them as triangular portals into an ever changing program of performances, was to render animate and textured what had always been static and two dimensional in photographs and on screens.

It was like finally meeting that long idolized celebrity and finding a real person beneath the veneer of makeup and scripted speeches.

But this wasn’t like Uluru, where the celebrity turned out to be a diva. This was a case where reality seemed to renew the image I had in my head, rather than destroy it. In fact, the only worrying element of reality occurred as I was watching a flock of seagulls circle overhead at one point. Their flight speckled one of the shells with about a dozen gracefully pirouetting shadows, swirling black flecks against an ivory wall. We were far enough away from the crowds that the noise had largely abated. Even the usual grating squawks of the seagulls themselves were absent, leaving just this silent choreography.

Beneath this mesmerizing sight, all I could think about was the very real possibility of getting pooped on.

You may be wondering at this point what the hell I’m on about getting all flowery and shit as I describe this place. All I can say is that it just felt so incredible to realize that I was standing on the other side of the world, that I had finally traveled this far and was standing in the presence of a building that had embodied my impressions of Sydney (not to mention Australia) for so many years. Of course, it probably helps that we didn’t actually see an opera at the Opera House, because ever since I left a music class one afternoon in the sixth grade with a headache that screamed louder than the opera sample that brought it on, I’ve done my best to avoid the whole genre. And you might argue that the only reason I was so enchanted with it was because I’d built it up so much in my head that I wanted to be enchanted with it (although let me remind you of my high expectations for Uluru and how I really did get pooped on there).

But whatever about flowery shit and headaches and preconceived notions. The fact of the matter is that my notes for that evening read, “just wow freakin’ wow to finally see this.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

In terms of sticking to things, however, we had by this time fallen behind our predicted timetable for the evening. Realizing that my only chance of getting up close to the Harbour Bridge before Richard did his light switch thing was shrinking with every passing moment, I reluctantly turned away.

And so began the Great Bridge Sleuthing Expedition of 2015.

So, um, how do I put this without sounding like an idiot…um, well, we couldn’t find it. I mean, well, it’s not that we couldn’t find it find it, it’s just that we…okay, we couldn’t find it. I’m not making this up. Some time between balking at the realization that the bridge was a wee bit farther away than it seemed (or at least a wee bit farther away than was desirable at eleven p.m. when we had to be up obscenely early the following day), and passing the point of no return (i.e., the point where we were far enough away from the metro that I knew we were committed to the cause no matter what), we kind of lost sight of this colossal slab of steel that’s high enough to pass a ten story building beneath and longer than the buffet line at Holiwood Nights.

The Great Bridge Sleuthing Expedition of 2015 thus unfolded more or less as follows:

  • Richard, having pre-programmed the bridge’s southern terminus on his bulky, unwieldy, and charmingly nerdy GPS watch, reminded me that he was going to use his bulky, unwieldy, and charmingly nerdy GPS watch to get us there.
  • I acknowledged this, just as I have the other approximately 3,675 times he has glowingly reminded me of this watch’s usefulness, while silently vowing to keep an eye out for street signs: for it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a technological gadget, must be in want of a woman to roll her eyes and take over when the gadget invariably causes frustration and abundant swearing.
  • The First Law of Modern GPS Navigation, which is that the satellite signal is somehow always better approximately three feet at a 45 degree angle away from you, was duly demonstrated by Richard, who was leading the way with his watch-bearing arm extended at the sort of awkward angle that he probably wouldn’t find funny were I to point it out at this stage of the evening.
  • I began to regret those Bermuda shorts again.
  • The Second Law of Modern GPS Navigation, which states that the most meanderingly absurd route will always be chosen if it’s 22 seconds quicker than the most direct and logical route, was once again proven. We could hear the vehicles rushing toward the bridge—hell, we could even walk beneath the highway on which they drove—but the labyrinth of hilly streets and staircases the watch directed us through to reach them is not a route I could easily replicate.
  • I wished I had a bottle of water. And my deodorant.
  • Richard’s patience began to wane. Still, he trooped on because a) he is a good, kind boyfriend and knew how much I wanted to walk across this bridge and b) he is a shrewd, smart boyfriend and knew how much he didn’t want to listen to my disappointed musings if we didn’t.
  • I accumulated the equivalent of a small fjord between my boobs.

But finally, with one last set of stairs that could have awarded my suffocating thighs immediate employment at the Ministry of Silly Walks, we emerged at the correct footpath.

Was the sweat dribbling down my front and my increasingly parched throat worth it?

 

sydney6

Oh come on, what do you think?

For all the times I dreamed about seeing this view in person, I always pictured it in the daytime. While I would have loved to make that image a reality, the advantage to being time constrained was experiencing a view that I’d imagined thousands of times in a way that seemed novel and extraordinary.

Instead of gleaming white triangles, the Opera House was now a softly lit bundle of canvas sails. Instead of a cobalt harbor, the water rippled with thousands of reflected lights like a moonrise over a black ocean. Every few minutes, a ferry would cut through, the waves in its wake like the boughs of an evergreen cascading atop each other. For the first time, I registered the view beyond the harbor, admiring the way the lights on the buildings contoured the skyline.

We made our way across, Richard stopping every now and then for photos, me stopping a bit more often to gawk, until I reached the middle. That’s when I decided to look up, and that’s when it really hit me that I should be appreciating the Harbour Bridge as more than just a 1,149 meter long Kodak spot.

 

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There’s no question that it’s impressive when viewed from afar, but to focus on it up close is arresting. All that dark gray steel—all those thick iron beams, all that latticework, all those rivets—especially all those rivets—is just so industrial looking, so damn powerful looking. In front of me whooshed hundreds of cars, a din of engines and metal and wheels. Behind them rumbled a train coming from Milsons Point. And that’s the thing about bridges. Fundamentally, they are simply a means of conveyance from Point A to Point B. And yet…my eyes followed the rivets skyward. I craned my neck back far enough that I just about lost my balance. Against the black sky, the two Australian flags glowed in their white spotlights. Unfurling above the trusses, the rivets, the bustle, the noise, the Opera House, the ferries, the lights, the skyline, they were the coup de grâce to a masterpiece: “AUSTRALIA,” they seemed to say. “We are really fucking pleased with ourselves here.”

Like I said, you know you’re onto something special when you pull out a pretentious French term to describe it.

After we completed the bridge crossing, we decided to take the train back across. It was nearly midnight and the alarm would be going off in less than six hours, but even with that bleak thought I was exultant. Also thirsty. But mostly exultant because I did it. I’d finally experienced Sydney. Okay, so it was Sydney in a nutshell—hell, even less than that; probably more like a sunflower seed shell—but fuck it, I was thrilled anyway. Up until a short time ago visiting Australia hadn’t even been on my radar, let alone the prospect of hanging out for an evening in a city that had tantalized my imagination for fifteen years. There was something so satisfying on seeing what it was like, if only for one night.

I had reached that stage of the evening where I was drunk with elation and probably delirious with fatigue.

In the movies, this is the part where the cops come to break up the party and everyone scurries away.

In real life, this was the part where the thunderstorms came to break up the mood and we scurried for cover.

We arrived back at the hotel as disheveled as if we had actually been to some rager. The only differences were that we were drenched in rainwater instead of a questionable medley of spilled alcohol, bodily fluids and shame; and that the copious quantity of bottled water I began glugging before I even paid for it wasn’t to ward off a hangover, but rather because I’d shed more sweat than a Rocky montage thanks to those damn Bermuda shorts.

But oh, what a night.

* * *

Unfortunately, we didn’t quite escape despair the following morning. It wasn’t so much the torture that is wrenching yourself from a cozy bed after too little sleep, nor was it the ensuing combat against agonizingly heavy eyelids.

It was a hangover, and the hangover’s name was Pat*.

*Name is totally made up. Regrettably, the woman to whom it refers is not.

Now, I have to be honest. I don’t drink, so I’ve never had a hangover. But I gather they are terrible, and Pat was terrible. Pat was a walking headache, a nauseatingly shrill hellion who made me inwardly groan, wince, and long for the sanctity of a quiet, dark room.

Pat was a hangover incarnate, and that’s because Pat was an American tourist.

It started on our way to breakfast. Richard and I were the first ones on the elevator. A couple floors down, we picked up two more people, who each had a large rolling suitcase. It wasn’t a large elevator, so we made room with that that bleary-eyed, listless shuffle that people perform in elevators at six a.m. and continued toward the lobby in mutual silence.

On the second floor (or first floor for you European folk)—you know, the floor where it’s always faster to take the stairs than wait for an elevator—the car stopped, the doors opened, and there stood the human equivalent of snapping open a windowshade the morning after a bender.

“Now, everybody!” came a voice far too peppy to belong to anything human at this hour. “Mooooove back! Move back!” As she said all this, she gesticulated in the kind of exaggerated manner that belongs on a stage, swinging her chubby arms and flapping her wrists as though to push us all away. Somehow she managed to squeeze both herself and her friend into the elevator. She tittered and giggled at herself, even though the rest of us hadn’t said a word. But then she turned her head, beamed, and loudly proclaimed the following that I swear to you and every deity out there I am not making up: “You can tell I’m a sassy lady!”

She said this. She really said this. At six a.m. in an elevator full of sleepy, half comatose people, a past middle aged woman who was dressed like she’d just come from the set of SNL’s “Mom Jeans” parody commercial really said this. At six a.m. in an elevator full of sleepy, half comatose people she had just ordered around in the manner one corrals unruly schoolchildren, she really said this. Richard and I whipped our heads toward each other and engaged in one of those conversations where darting pupils and dancing eyebrows do all the talking.

We escaped the confines of the elevator only to find that Pat and her still silent friend hostage, definitely hostage, were heading toward the breakfast room like us. When we reached the host stand, Pat was in the process of nasally bleating to the host and everyone within the greater Sydney and Canberra metropolitan areas that she wanted a table for two.

The host nodded and gestured toward the dining room, telling her they could sit wherever they wished and that they were welcome to help themselves to the buffet.

Pat began to sputter. “But—but—no, no, I want to eat at the restaurant!”

“The restaurant over there?” asked the host, pointing to the darkened windows and locked door of the full service restaurant on the other side of the lobby that wasn’t open, as anyone literate could deduce by the hours posted on the door. “It’s closed. This is the only breakfast place here.”

“What? So it’s only the buffet?”

“Yes.”

“But I want real breakfast!” she screeched.

While Pat stood off to the side bemoaning the prospect of fictitious eggs and fraudulent hash browns, Richard and I approached the host stand. “Two of us for the fake breakfast, please,” he said.

* * *

And with that incident, just as with a hangover, any sense of magic left over from the previous night was well and most assuredly gone. In its place was a loudmouthed, awkward thwack of reality: for Pat and I sat at the same lunch table. We were both American tourists. Pat was a reminder, albeit a rather embarrassing one, of where I come from. Pat was a reminder that I am not really a part of Sydney, that I am just a visitor, and that soon enough, I would be thousands of miles away from it again.

I would be back to admiring it from afar.

But even as we ventured toward our next destination under cloudy skies that cast a pall over the city, I could still picture how it dazzled the evening before because I had really been there. For one night, I finally got to see what it was like. For one night the door opened and I was invited inside. For one night I got to turn the images in my head into a reality that didn’t have the Olympic theme music piping through the background. For one night I could be a part of it, even if it was just for pretend.

Yes, I know my experience was a mere pixel of the larger picture.

 

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But I’m sorry, college professors who taught me how to overanalyze everything. It’s impossible to spoil the excitement of just simply getting to experience it at all.

At any rate, it’s probably good I didn’t wait any longer. Pat had a voice that could sunder steel. I can see the headline now:

HARBOUR BRIDGE COLLAPSES DUE TO SASSINESS AND BOGUS BACON

***

***

***

***

So who’s ready for more roller coaster related things?

TreeTop Adventure Park

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Roller coaster related things, I said. Related.

Richard likes surprising me. Surprise adventures, surprise geeky coaster souvenirs, surprise lunges from outside the bathroom door if I unintentionally wake him up when I get up to pee in the middle of the night. This is someone who didn’t tell me we were going to Alton Towers until the alarm went off one morning at 3:45 and he said if I wanted to fulfill my lifelong dream to ride Nemesis, I’d better hurry up because we had a plane to catch. I’ve since wised up to some of his tricks, but he still manages to throw me a curve ball now and again, and TreeTop Adventure Park was one of those…actually, no, that’s not entirely accurate. It was more like a foul ball, where you hit the mark but it bounces off in a direction you weren’t expecting. I had a very strong inkling we were going to TreeTop Adventure Park because about a week or so before leaving for Australia, Richard came out to the living room where I was nursing a stubborn case of writer’s block with YouTube puppy videos and questioned how badly I wanted to do the Sydney Opera House tour we’d previously agreed upon.

“What did you find?” I asked in that slow and patronizing tone adults use when they suspect a child is up to no good (or that Megans use when they know full right well why their Richards are being deliberately evasive).

“I’m not telling you.”

“Well, that’s a lot of help.”

“Do you trust my judgment?”

“You chose me to be your girlfriend. Therefore, no.”

“I’ll go ahead with this new plan, then.”

I paused the puppy videos and had a quick rummage through TripAdvisor’s Sydney area activities and determined TreeTop Adventure Park the most likely candidate for this surprise activity. Skimming the reviews, I inferred the place was all ropes courses and zip lines. This pleased me, and—

 

Duke .... 3

You know what, I was just talking about puppies, and it is a scientifically proven fact that trip reports and indeed just about anything are made infinitely better with puppies, so here is a puppy.

Anyway, as I was saying, I really enjoy those sorts of things, particularly ropes courses, but Richard and I had never done one together.

Perhaps if I’d actually taken the time to look at the park’s website instead of just browsing TripAdvisor, I would have realized a) there are actually three TreeTop Adventure Parks and b) one of them happened to have another type of adventure on offer. But I didn’t.

 

Cody Watson 21

(You can hardly blame me: Puppies > the grammatical trainwreck that’s your typical TripAdvisor review.)

 

pioneer2

And that’s why, when I first saw this single silver rail braided through the trees as we parked at the TreeTop Central Coast location (the other TreeTop parks are in western Sydney and Newcastle), I could give Richard the satisfaction of having surprised me after all.

“What is that?” I asked.

That is what we are doing,” he replied.

“But what is it?”

“It’s called the TreeTop Crazy Rider. It’s like a hybrid of a Caripro Batflyer and a zip line.”

“So no ropes course or anything like that?” I asked.

“Nope. Just this.”

I perked up. Besides the part when we drove through the Sydney suburbs and I observed with great amusement how all the schoolchildren were wearing straw hats as part of their uniforms, or the bit when Australian Karen started getting on my nerves when she kept pronouncing Pacific Motorway as “Pacific MWY” because her tiny computer brain apparently didn’t understand abbreviations, I’d spent most of the ride in a groggy haze, my fatigue turning me almost cynical about the prospect of undertaking a ropes course. I felt bad because I knew Richard wanted to surprise me, and I knew he’d scheduled it this abominably early so as to maximize our extremely limited time in Sydney, but I just could not get myself excited. Now, though, curiosity began to supersede sleepiness.

Apart from the few bits that fringed the parking lot, the silver rail was immersed in the dense woodland that gave the park its name, weaving and arcing and rippling amongst the trees. It was suspended from a truss of cables reaching high into the foliage. I couldn’t tell where it began or ended, let alone discern the total length of the track. It almost looked like an inverted Brandauer alpine coaster.

“So did I surprise you?” asked Richard, extracting a sheet of paper from the plastic pocket folder he’d stored in the trunk out of my sight.

“Yeah, you did,” I said. “Well, to be honest, I did guess that we were coming here, but I assumed we’d be doing a ropes course or something. I had no idea this thing existed.”

“How did you figure the TreeTop part but not the one thing here that resembles a coaster?” he asked.

“Well that’s a very cromulent question,” I replied.

“You just failed your enthusiast test.” He grinned.

“Oh, hush.”

No doubt very pleased with himself, Richard went on to explain that these types of rides are relatively new and still pretty rare; he’d only learned of them the past November when TreeTop’s installations opened. There were two tracks here and the sheet of paper was a reservation confirmation for one ride on each. Their last minute addition to the itinerary resulted from the park recently extending its hours. Previously, it had been marked as closed today.

 

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The place still looked very closed, however. Ours was one of two cars in the lot. Richard shrugged and said the website had strongly urged making a reservation, so we ambled over to the small wooden shed that had the appearance of a main office. We were met there by two energetic girls in their early twenties who would be our ride operators. They welcomed us warmly, asked how our trip was going, and reassured us that no, even though there was no one else here, we had not made them get up early just to accommodate us.

Reservation confirmed and we-are-not-responsible-if-you-happen-to-be-a-moron waivers signed, we proceeded to get dressed in the armor of buckles and straps and carabiners these kinds of activities require. The girls handed us each an unwieldy metal triangle whose purpose would be to connect our harnesses to the overhead rail and then we were escorted to the first track.

Actually, “escorted” is too elegant a term. The guide made the walk looking like normally functioning ambulatory human. We, on the other hand, waddled behind her, the groin straps of our harnesses—already awkward enough when they’re attached by someone else’s hands—inhibiting our movement to something slightly resembling one of those poor dogs forced to wear dignity destroying booties in the name of YouTube views and a spot on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

A short bowlegged walk later, we stepped onto the wooden platform of the first track. Named Pioneer, this was the shorter of the two courses—a sort of practice course, if you will, before taking on the monster Xtreme up the hill. I was definitely wide awake by this point. My thoughts were that uneasy cocktail of excitement, uncertainty and anticipation that’s served to the nerves before undertaking a high adrenaline activity for the first time. I volunteered to ride first because if there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s to announce last call on that cocktail as soon as possible before it overcomes you.

 

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The operator set me up, attaching me to the track via the triangle. She told me to “sit,” which basically meant mimicking one of trust exercises they make you do in office team building activities where you’re supposed to focus on bonding with your coworkers as you catch someone falling backward off a chair but instead you’re cringing at touching Ted from accounting’s sweaty back rolls. In this case, the previously floppy backside of my harness had been pulled taut once I was connected to the rail. I stuck my legs out and for one unnerving second it felt like I might thud onto the platform. Of course, I didn’t, for the harness caught me in the little seat that had been created when it was pulled upward and clipped to the triangle.

The operator radioed down to her partner to confirm the track was clear, told me to cross my ankles and tuck in my elbows to avoid brushes with errant foliage, and then off I went.

And let me tell you, this was one trailblazing pioneer.

It was immediately clear that this was, for lack of a better term, something else.

 

Dragon's Breath Labadee, Haiti

Dragon’s Breath
Labadee, Haiti

For all the thrill of zip lines, their trajectory is predictable: you know you are in for a straight, descending sprint.

This, on the other hand, flung itself around corners, yanked itself just as rabidly in the opposite direction, and felt about as controlled as the fiscal handling practices within FIFA. This isn’t to say it was hurtling along at eye watering speed, because it wasn’t. The proximity of the trees, however, gave an illusion of speed that was only amplified when it seemed like I’d be lobbed right into their branches at every turn.

 

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As for roller coasters, we all know that their track is supposed to slightly waver and oscillate, but it never moves so much that you feel unsafe (unless it happens to be the Dragon at Beech Bend). The rail on Pioneer, however, was liberally undulating and swaying, its flexibility giving the impression of a ride far more rickety than I would have expected from the sleek silver rails I’d viewed from the ground. It was both fascinating and disconcerting, but the best was yet to come.

Toward the end of the course, I rounded a bend and, instead of the frenetic curves that had been the chief feature of the track so far, a sharp and rather steep looking dip was ahead. Given the aggressive lateral forces on the turns, I quickly realized that a drop like that was going to initiate some serious back and forth swinging, just like a swing at a playground. The only difference was that playground swings typically don’t have obstacles in their path like the solid steel bar of track that would be blasting my knees as soon as the momentum from the fall swung me back up (or at least that’s what my limited knowledge of physics was telling me).

Of course, that didn’t happen (if it had, you would have noticed how the atmosphere around you suddenly seemed lighter as a result of the boundless mirth of someone paying off their student loans). It didn’t stop me, though, from cowering as gravity snatched my harness-seat and wrenched it down like a window shade. I was bewildered at what seemed a defiance of physics when I exited the element unscathed, but I didn’t have much time to commend myself for choosing biology instead of word problems about pendulums and rolling balls and two trains traveling toward each other that are run by people who apparently have never heard of this concept called a timetable.

 

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I reached the end of the line where the other attendant was waiting. She unhooked me, radioed to her partner that the track was now clear, and asked how I liked it as we waited for Richard.

How did I like it? Forgive the cliché, but it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The whole feel of it—those violent flinging turns, the sight of the track wriggling before me, the unpredictability of the layout—was just so different. It was not quite zip line, not quite coaster, but a curious blend of the two that was as wild as it was delightful.

And that was just the little guy.

Up next was Xtreme, the kilometer long monstrosity that overtakes Pioneer in both size and publicity. The girls switched places in monitoring the start and finish (we later learned it was because one of them had recently seen a snake on the path up to Xtreme‘s starting point and, as any reasonable person would be in the matter of Australian wildlife, she was deathly afraid of encountering another one) and we began a climb that was embarrassingly strenuous. This became especially noticeable when you compared our dragging asses to our ride operator, who took to the hill like it was a game of Q*Bert. Carrying the heavy triangles on what had become a humid morning did us no favors, and we reached the top in a stew of sweat and panting in lamentation for our younger, fitter selves.

This time Richard went first. The ride operator told me it was about a four to five minute ride to the end. While I waited, we chatted about other “extreme” activities. She’d been skydiving four times, which made my story about doing the Stratosphere SkyJump seem measly by comparison. Then she relayed how her rather elderly Nana had fearlessly conquered the Crazy Riders a few days before. Well, then. Neither one of us was going to top that.

The radio call came, there was a flurry of buckling and clipping, and I was off.

 

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For all its intimidating size, though, Xtreme wasn’t as…well, extreme as its little brother. This isn’t to say it was a “bad” ride. Any ride that whisks you through the trees with nothing but a piece of nylon protecting you from a bone breaking fall (and a bone breaking fall into the lethal jaws of Australian fauna at that) is in no way going to lose points in the thrills department. Xtreme was, in fact, very exciting, starting with the fact that it was so high off the ground. Its stature only became appreciable once we were slogging up that hill. When I wasn’t lying to myself about my deplorable fitness level, I was eyeing how this silver bar rippling through the leaves seemed at least a couple hundred feet above the ground. It’s okay, Megan, I was thinking. You were never one for being in shape. Remember how you were always one of the last ones to finish the mile run in gym class? So this hill is definitely not proof that you are getting older, nope, definitely not oh hey that’s really high off the ground and also you are an idiot for wearing a fleece in this humidity.

The impression of height only strengthened once I was on the track. You know how women’s magazines condemn overweight girls wearing horizontal stripes because they claim it makes them look wider? (Wait, you might not know because this readership is like 90% male, isn’t it? Okay, well, guys, just so you know, women’s magazines are written by women who reinforce, via pages and pages of fashion, makeup and dieting “tips,” the idea that a woman’s primary concern should be her appearance, thereby upholding the very patriarchy they wish to destroy.) Anyway, in this case, the dozens and dozens of vertical tree trunks created an illusion of tallness, making the ground seem farther away than it really was. I read that Xtreme‘s track is only sixty feet above ground, but then again, that comes from a Daily Mail article, a publication whose sidebar headlines are invariably about female celebrities’ sex appeal (“Abbey Clancy smoulders in sensational selfie as she pouts up a storm in scanty underwear set during photoshoot”; “Selfie queen Karen Danczuk flaunts her infamous figure as she parties in cleavage-enhancing dress” I mean for fuck’s sake) so I’ll take it about as seriously as I do those women’s magazines. At any rate, the real number doesn’t matter. When all you’ve got are a few carabiners holding you, the ground is going to seem far away.

As a consequence of the height, the constantly quivering rail became that little bit more disconcerting. So, too, were the turns. Pioneer‘s turns were vicious, but Xtreme took those lateral forces to an entirely different level both literally and figuratively.

Height wasn’t the only thing Xtreme had going for it, though. It is a mark of superb engineering that this ride introduces an element I am going to call the George of the Jungle Optical Illusion. There were a few parts in the course where the track appeared to cut some very fine clearances with the trees; at one point it seemed mere inches from touching a trunk. Just as that hill on Pioneer had my brain scrambling to calculate the physics of imminent doom, here it was a matter of how much arm skin I’d be parting with. I mean, there’s no way I’m getting past that tree without brushing against it, I thought. Except I’m moving too fast to just brush it, so it’ll be more like scraping and slashing and shredding crapcrapcrapWATCHOUTFORTHATTREEEEEEEEE—

And then at the last second, my harness-seat swerved, miraculously sparing my arm from becoming a Parmesan block on a grater. I wasn’t sure how it had happened because the curvature of the track didn’t give it away. Maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention. Or maybe I should have resisted the Siren song of the Krebs cycle and taken physics after all.

Yet despite all this, Xtreme had a lot of downtime. Apart from the highlights I’ve mentioned, my harness-seat spent most of the course just swaying side to side without ever picking up the kind of speed I’d expect on a ride named Xtreme. There were a few downward helices, but they were nowhere near as nimble or startling as that one hill on Pioneer. On the whole, it lacked the former’s unbridled vigor and pep. Actually, if I’m being honest, four minutes of swaying broken by a few lateral-heavy turns here and there rendered the layout a bit repetitive.

But!

I think the only thing at fault here is the name. The ride itself is enjoyable and fun, but it’s really more scenic than it is extreme. It does have its thrilling parts, certainly. I would be remiss to not acknowledge some nervousness as I found myself perched on a band of fabric that was sliding and swinging down a wobbly, skinny rail some considerable distance from the ground. Once I got used to the movement, though, I kept expecting more—more wildness, more intensity. The reason the course layout seemed so repetitive was that I was so focused on the track ahead, waiting for it to morph into the “outrageous and unexpected fun” advertised on the website. I think if I had approached it with an eye for the surrounding woodland scenery instead of scanning every bend in the track waiting for something that never came, I’d feel less inclined to judge it by the criteria that made Pioneer so exhilarating and…well, extreme.

 

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I really do want to make it clear that Xtreme is not a bad ride, lest I sound like some arrogant, stuck up, “nothing impresses me anymore” coaster enthusiast (oh my goodness, wouldn’t it be dreadful if this hobby had some people like that?!?). It just needs a better fitting name.

***

And speaking of how to label things, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: are the TreeTop Crazy Riders credits or not? Well, yes…but no. And no…but yes.

They are gravity driven. They roll. They coast. They are more roller coaster than a powered anything. They are certainly more roller coaster than some of the flumes listed on rcdb. They are even more roller coaster than an alpine coaster because they ride truly at the whim of gravity—there are no handbrakes to speak of. It is possible to valley on them (when this happens, an operator will ride down the track to give the stalled person a push from behind). The track may not be a full circuit, but neither is a Vekoma Boomerang. Rather than disengaging a chain or rocketing off some LSMs, a set of hands provides the initial nudge before gravity takes over—but haven’t we all seen a few Big Apples that require manual effort to get off the platform?

Objectively speaking, it’s hard to refute these things are credits.

Personal coaster counts, however, are subjective: to me, they are not credits. There comes a point where you have to draw the limit. If I counted everything that was gravity driven at some point in its layout, I’d have on my list dark rides and flumes and slides and Deno’s Wonder Wheel and that time during a snowstorm when I realized I’d made a terrible mistake in trying to drive up the hill to my house.

So yes, they are technically credits but no, they’re not credits for me.
And no, they may not be credits for me, but yes, they may be credits for you.

It’s a decision you’ll have to make sooner or later. According to our ride operators, the folks at TreeTop Adventure Park actually did the research and development for the Crazy Riders in house and have begun licensing them out to others. Sure enough, Screamscape recently reported that a proposed new attraction in Branson, Missouri has a zip coaster on the docket. I would love to see these take off the way alpine coasters have.

At the end of the day, when the metal triangle has been unlocked from the track and the carabiners unhooked, it won’t matter whether you mark them as credits or not (unless you’re a pedantic, pettifogging bawbag. Oh my goodness, wouldn’t it be dreadful if this hobby had some people like that?!?)

They’re fun. That’s all there is to it, really.

And with that, let’s have Australian Karen lead us back to the mwy so we may head to our next destination.

 

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(But one more doggy for the road.  Just ’cause.)

Who’s ready for a coaster whose creditworthiness is clear-cut and uncomplicated?

Scenic World

…a coaster whose creditworthiness is clear-cut, uncomplicated…

 

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…and utterly impossible to tick.

Hey, I never said it was a coaster that was open.
Or that has ever been open.
Or that ever will be open.

 

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I mean, just because it’s a cat’s cradle of peeling paint and rust that’s seen greater patronage from the surrounding underbrush than it ever has from riders, and just because that’s been the case for over thirty years, doesn’t mean it’s not a “real” credit.

Yet the word “real” is problematic. I mean, it is real. It’s physically there. It was the first thing I saw when we arrived. The pictures don’t lie. But it could be argued that it’s only real insofar as it’s corporeal. For this coaster, “reality” is far more complicated. In a way, its material form doesn’t exist at all—or at least it’s valiantly ignored. It’s there, but it’s not there. It is not something that is, but rather something that will be. It is a coaster whose true essence remains (or is supposed to remain) intangible: it’s ethereal.

And that’s because this coaster is Orphan Rocker, quite possibly the most notorious SBNO coaster in history.

Therein, of course, lies its appeal to enthusiasts. There is something so wretchedly beautiful about a roller coaster standing dormant, rotting and rusting and relenting to Mother Nature’s creeping yet merciless invasion. Boscage does not discriminate and cares not for sentimentality; it swallows structure and confiscates track without remorse, leaving us only a pathetic shell of what used to stand burnished and proud. I think it’s that connection between observable decrepitude and dreamlike nostalgia that makes SBNO coasters so alluring. There’s this sense of pity because it feels like you’re looking at something that almost seems sentient, something that seems painfully aware of its fate yet gracefully accepting it nonetheless. The only soul it has left is what your reminiscing mind can infuse into it. But no matter what you imagine, it always seems like there’s so much more—more stories, more secrets, more memories—that will be forever locked away in that silent, decaying track, especially if you’ve never ridden it.

 

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So you keep staring at it, transfixed, unable to stop humanizing it, unable to stop wondering what once was.

Except in the case of Orphan Rocker, it’s more like what never was.

Orphan Rocker is a thirty year old mess of rumors, dodgy reports, fishy promises and skepticism. Construction began in the early to mid 1980s (though no one can seem to pin whether it was 1982 or 1983). It was the creation of Harry Hammon and his son Philip, who originally conceived of it as a monorail before developing it into a roller coaster. Its initial claim to fame was that it was the first coaster designed and built entirely by Australian companies. Now, its fame derives from a far less boastful attribute: it is, without question, Australia’s most legendary roller coaster failure.

Orphan Rocker never made it past the testing stage. The word is that it outright flunked its exams, running into some major problems that precluded its opening to the public. The nature of those problems, however, has never been clear. As nearly always happens in cases of missing information, outrageous yet enduring rumors have come to stand in for the facts: cars derailed and went careening down the mountain, cars returned to the station minus a few of the sandbag dummies they’d started with, one morning the testers noticed a spider in one of the cars and decided they’d stop testing to give the spider a year or two or thirty to move on…okay, so I may have made that last one up.

Outrageous or not, though, it’s impossible not to harbor skepticism on the safety of a coaster that has remained SBNO since failing its tests in the 1980s. Minor mechanical flaws don’t require years, let alone decades, to fix. Neither do adjustments to improve rider comfort. Anthea Hammon, one of the park’s managing directors, said in a 2006 article that the ride’s safety has never been in question; rather, its postponed opening was at least partially due to modifications meant to raise its comfort factor. Normally, I’m the first to jump to a park’s defense when the general public parrots the hysteria the media loves to conjure in unremarkable events like a run-of-the-mill lift hill evacuation, but even I can’t help but wonder if Hammon’s claim is some crafty, PR-friendly cover-up of something. Then again, rcdb does list various tweaks made to the ride over the years, one of which was the replacement of the wheel hubs in 2002. That begs an even more incredulous question. Is it possible—is it actually possible—that we’re dealing with another Flying Turns

There are, of course, more realistic (though far less interesting) explanations for the ride’s SBNO state: overly bureaucratic certification procedures, insurance approval hurdles, time consuming revisions in the name of updated safety codes, limited budget, yadda yadda.

And then there’s the one answer that seems to be, and has long been, the overriding party line: that other projects and site redevelopment have taken precedence over Orphan Rocker for now but it will open.

For now. It will open, they always say, as if the whole site redevelopment thing were only temporary. As if the coaster hasn’t been an idle, rusting, derelict elephant in the room for the past three decades. Sometimes there’s a time frame in the answer—usually an ambiguous “in a few years” though I did once hear of an employee quoting a more exact “in four years”—but each time, the allotted time frame passes with no visible change. It’s as though Orphan Rocker is a sick person whose illness is downplayed and whose relatives live in denial about the true extent of its deterioration, placating themselves with false hopes that a cure is coming and things will be better someday.

What I see is moss-covered rust that hasn’t a bloody hope of ever operating.

Yet what its owners seem to see is an undying dream that will materialize someday.

 

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However it’s interpreted, though, one thing is certain: for a coaster enthusiast, Orphan Rocker is one hell of a sight. It’s an arresting, cadaverous spectacle. Dramatic. Striking. Beautiful, even, in a poignant and severe kind of way.

In fact, you might say it was…scenic.

 

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How felicitous that it’s located here, then!

 

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Strung across a tiny scrap of the Blue Mountains are the cables, tracks and trails that make up Scenic World, a nature park that, as you might have guessed, is pretty scenic.

The park is located in the town of Katoomba, a name that derives from an Aboriginal term meaning “shining, falling waters.” It is also a superb word to irritate the hell out of Richard when bellowed Yahtzee style multiple times throughout the two hour drive from Sydney (and with Karen still mwy-ing us down the highway, we made the sort of backseat juvenile duet—mwy. Ka-TOOOOOM-ba! mwy. Ka-TOOOOOM-ba! mwy. Ka-TOOOOOM-ba!—that may have bought me a few more years before having to worry about things like morning sickness and episiotomies).

 

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Originally a coal mine dating from the 1870s, the area evolved into Scenic World after Harry Hammon and his sister Isobel Fahey took over the lease for the land when the mine closed in 1945, seeing in it an opportunity to promote tourism in the Blue Mountains. Their first move was repurposing the mine’s incline railway, which had been used to transport coal up the mountainside, into a passenger train. As attendance rose, other modes of transport capitalizing on the breathtaking topography and magnificent views followed.

Today, Scenic World provides three scenic ways for acrophobes to keep the underwear industry humming:

 

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The aforementioned incline railway, known as the Scenic Railway

 

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…the Scenic Cableway, which transports you up and down the mountain via cables that you’ll pray aren’t of Intamin quality even though no deity will hear you if the car is loaded with Chinese tourists…

 

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…and the Scenic Skyway, which will make you question if that last McNugget you had at lunch was really worth it once you’re standing on a glass floor dangling 885 feet above the Jamison Valley.

 

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There’s also a nature walkway.

 

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Want to guess what it’s called?

Orphan Rocker‘s part in all of this, besides leaving me to wonder what happened to the guy responsible for coming up with creative names, was to add some thrills to the roster. It did so by outdoing everything in the terrain coaster category in addition to tinkering with some tricks that have only been perfected in the last few years.

 

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Remember all those four letter words you uttered when Glenwood Caverns unveiled this S&S Screamin’ Swing that goes flying out over the edge a 1,300 foot canyon?

Orphan Rocker‘s signature move was a swooping turn on the rim of a cliff 700 feet above the valley floor.

And you know how WDW’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train features rocking cars? And you know how it only just opened in 2014? Turns out Orphan Rocker—which, remember, was designed thirty years before that—was also supposed to do just that: rock.

Which brings us to the name Orphan Rocker.

My initial thought when I first heard of Orphan Rocker was: What a badass name. I also thought it sounded a little morbid (please tell me I’m not the only one who pictured small, parentless children and babies being shaken to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”). Viewed in the proper context, however, the name is downright fucking ingenious:

 

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This sandstone tower is known as Orphan Rock, so called because millions of years of erosion have left it standing by itself. You used to be able to climb it until the 1970s when someone finally came to their senses and realized that clambering about an unstable boulder 700 feet off the ground carried a rather high likelihood of increasing the orphan population. Nowadays, you climb it only if you’re looking to win a Darwin Award.

Orphan Rock is one of the most famous landmarks in the Blue Mountains, so what do you do with a roller coaster rocking in its shadow that nearly throws itself off a cliff? Well, you don’t call it “Scenic Roller Coaster,” that’s for sure, though I can’t help but note the irony in how the only thing Orphan Rocker has ever been is a part of the scenery.

We did not drive two hours, however, just to gaze at scenic roller coaster porn.

 

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Sure, these panoramic vistas may not be able to compete with a rusting, decomposing coaster carcass.

 

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But hey, we were there and you, dear reader, have made it here, so let’s follow Monty to Scenic World’s operational things.

The first thing that we learned was operational at Scenic World was its marker collection. After paying admission (AUD$35 for an unlimited wristband), the girl behind the counter pulled out a map and asked if we’d ever visited before. Obviously I hadn’t; Richard had in 2008. “Okay, so I’ll just refresh you on where everything is,” she said, unfolding the map on the counter and reaching for a black marker. She twisted off the cap with a businesslike thwick and poised the marker’s thick, chiseled tip above the glossy paper: an artist before an easel. “So this is where you are now,” she instructed, drawing a pudgy circle around a building neatly marked as the Scenic World Top Station. She pointed over her left shoulder. “Through there is where you board the Scenic Railway, which takes you down to here.” She swiped the marker down the red line that marked the railway’s course and finished it with a scribbled in dot. The ink glistened. “The Scenic Skyway also starts up here and that takes you across the valley to here.” Another broad streak of shining black ink now overlaid the thin yellow line already printed on the map to mark the route. She went on to mark Katoomba Falls (a stubby letter X whose ends bled together), the route for the Scenic Cableway (another chunky scrawl terminating at an inky stump that I think was supposed to be an arrow) and various points of interest along the walking trails as well as how much time to allot for them (murky dots and dashes slung across the depicted greenery like a demented Morse code message). When she finally sheathed her felt-tipped bludgeon, the map looked about as comprehensible as a Jackson Pollock piece. There were blotches of heavy ink slopped over labels, while zealously daubed black stripes had pretty much nullified the point of its color coding.

We thanked her politely and moved on as she set up her next canvas.

 

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Mauled guide in hand, we decided to start where Scenic World had started: the Scenic Railway.

Actually, the incline railway began carrying paying customers long before Scenic World became Scenic World.

 

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Although its intended purpose was to haul coal up the escarpment, the railway eventually took on a second use when hikers proved willing to pay for a ride to avoid the arduous climb, these being the days before it was fashionable to be a pretentious douche who humblebrags about their workouts on Facebook. At first the passengers just perched on a plank in a coal skip, which doesn’t sound dangerous at all, but soon a train made exclusively for passenger travel was put into operation on weekends and holidays.

 

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Called the “Mountain Devil,” it was basically a handful of 2x4s trundling up and down a 675 foot vertical cliff face at a 52 degree angle, all while being held in place by a single wire, which also doesn’t sound dangerous at all.

 

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The sides were completely exposed, but sure look, that was okay because if the conductor felt the need to brush up on his theology when all the seats were occupied, hanging off the side would have afforded him a great opportunity to recite some Hail Marys.

Before Harry and Isobel took over the land lease, they ran a transportation business that supplied coal to local companies and the power station. The story goes that one day Harry was loading up coal when a group of American soldiers drove up and inquired about the railway. Unfortunately for them, they’d come on a weekday. Their disappointment no doubt strikes a familiar chord with many an enthusiast—“Goldarn it,” they reportedly lamented. (Goldarn? Goldarn?) “We drove all the way up from Sydney for a ride on that thing and it’s closed.”

In a manner sure to confound any poor soul who’s worked a long time in customer service, Harry genuinely felt sorry for having to turn them away. In fact, it was the cue for his entrepreneurial wheels to get spinning. By the time he took over the lease, he’d resolved to turn the railway into a full time commercial enterprise. Add to it some food kiosks and souvenir stalls, and you have the birth of Scenic World.

 

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And it’s no wonder this brought the crowds in.

I knew about funiculars but holy crap, I never realized just what a superhuman feat of engineering they were until this thing started down the mountain.

 

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With a 52 degree slope, Scenic World has the distinction of operating the steepest incline railway in the world. They are immensely proud of it, as well they should be, because let me tell you, you will feel every one of those 52 degrees and then some.

Already uncertain what to expect, I grew more intrigued when I boarded the train and found myself sitting on a bench tilted at a curious angle. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to sit or where to put my feet, much less why the Star Wars theme suddenly started piping through the cabin, but it quickly became clear (the seat thing, that is. Well, I suppose the Star Wars theme needs no justification because it’s just that awesome, especially now when we’re all sighing with relief that J.J. managed to awaken the Force without lens-flaring it into an unmitigated disaster). As soon as we rolled away from the station, the train bent down to follow the contour of the terrain and I was pushed back as though the bench were a rocking chair.

The Scenic Railway underwent an extensive rehabilitation in 2013 that saw the addition of new trains equipped with individually controlled benches that allow passengers to adjust the thrill factor of their ride. There are three settings: Original, which keeps the bench true to the track’s 52 degree slope; Laid Back, which keeps vertigo sufferers happy, or at least less likely to entertain their companions with colorful language; and Cliffhanger, which is just as it sounds—because why wimp out at 52 degrees when you could amp it up to 64?

At the time, I didn’t know this feature existed. I have no idea what bench setting we had, but it didn’t matter. Whatever it was made for a ride that was surprising, if a tad frightening, and one that left me awestruck at this incredible union of staggering topography and human ingenuity. For that, the Scenic Railway wound up being my favorite of Scenic World’s (operational) attractions.

It was impossible to ignore the kaleidoscope of butterflies that were sent a flutterin’ when the train dove off the cliff edge immediately out of the station. I’d dashed onto the train just before the doors closed and hadn’t noticed my surroundings. Thus, there was no warning, no gradual descent, nothing to prepare me for the abrupt pitch downward that had us running perpendicular (or so it seemed) to the station platform we’d been on just seconds ago. It reminded me of a snake slithering over and down a low brick wall. The dual sensations of the drop and the bench’s reclining response were startling enough on their own, but the other surprise element of those first seconds was how quickly the train gained velocity.

 

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Yessir, I can’t say I disapproved of the fully enclosed trains that came onto the scene after that 2013 renovation.

 

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(I’m told that prior to that, the only thing separating you from the Mountain Devil conductors of yesteryear was a confidence-inspiring plastic chain as highlighted in this 2008 photo.)

 

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And those new overhead bars were a definite thumbs up. I put my thumbs up pretty high for them. Actually, I liked them so much that I gave them a high five, too. Two high fives simultaneously, in fact.

 

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And only once I realized that I was using the roof window to look ahead, and only once I realized I was moving far too fast to take a decent photograph (at least that’s the excuse I’ll use this time), and only once I realized that we’d been carrying on in this alarmingly vertical fashion for a rather long time, did I come to appreciate just how viciously steep and high this terrain was.

 

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Oh, and it was also really scenic. Full of surprises, this ride.

But with that awareness came a sense of wonder that this incline railway had been built at all. I mean, we’re talking a railway built down the fucking side of a fucking cliff. It was impossible not to respect this work of man versus nature. This is dangerous, unforgiving terrain no matter how—or when—you tackle it. Even when the ride was renovated in 2013, all the modern safety and construction equipment in the world didn’t negate the fact that this was a fifty to sixty degree slope where one misstep risked more than just momentary embarrassment (or long lasting embarrassment if your coworkers happened to be particularly creative in coming up with humorous and pejorative nicknames like Blundering Bill or Dirt Kisser).

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And that’s just the building of it. The fact that someone actually imagined cutting a railway down that sheer precipice (yes, the one pictured above. Yes, really) and thought, Hmmmm, that sounds like a good idea! seems almost unfathomable. Or maybe it just seems that way because my response in that situation would have been to say fuck it and then sit in the shade with an iced tea. Regardless, I reached the bottom of the track contemplative and reverent.

And then I was engulfed in a cacophonous blast of squawking and yapping and shouting.

Or, to put it another way, I exited onto the station platform where Chinese tourists were engaged in polite and civil discussion, presumably about things that were scenic. It dawned on us then that we’d timed our vacation close to the Chinese New Year holidays. In our collective experience, it seems that Chinese volume control circuitry is configured, shall we say, somewhat differently from standard Western settings (Americans notwithstanding). Realizing that decibel awareness would likely be a theme in the days to come, we gave them a generous head start before we started our trek along the Scenic Walkway.

 

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Oh good, I feel much more welcome now that my potential as a cold-hearted plant murderer has been kindly pointed out.

 

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TL;DR: “This walk might kill or horribly maim you. Have fun!”

Heartened by such optimistic prospects, we took to the trail.

 

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Overall, I think I’d describe it as pretty scenic.

Seriously, though, if there was one part of Scenic World where I could have done with more time, it was the walkway. In the interest of leaving enough time for the evening’s activities, we covered only the distance between the Scenic Railway and Scenic Cableway stations, which was but a tiny branch of a hefty trail network. Nonetheless, our brief amble was worthwhile and as educational as it was scenic. All along the boardwalk were guideposts marking points of interest along with informational tidbits about each one.

 

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Like this, for example. This was a tree fern that continued growing even after it had fallen, resulting in this L shape that was undoubtedly the most scenic L shape I’d ever seen.

The highlighted features weren’t just restricted to vegetation, though. Some of them recalled the area’s mining past. The most interesting of these encouraged us to look closely for buckets that have been on the forest floor since 1890 when the cable for an early coal and shale transportation system performed the famous Intamin maneuver.

 

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It was pretty, serene, and oh so green. Oh, and scenic, if I hadn’t already mentioned that. 

That is, until I saw the carnage.

So much carnage. So much devastation. So much wanton destruction and such outright heedless desecration

 

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…of the fundamental principles of apostrophe use.

Oh! Oh! To recall that semantic nightmare—it’s almost too much to bear!

Folks, that’s “it’s,” as in “it is.”

 

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Oh! My eyes, my eyes! See that illicit apostrophe, its placement the barbarous doing of punctuational philistines!

Folks, that’s “its,” the possessive of the pronoun “it,” which, in this case, refers to that apostrophe. Would you say “up in it is branches” or “in it is lifetime”? No, you would not, unless you’re a moron.

What vile monster would do something like this?!? Why hadn’t the sign out front warned me of such savagery? Who could possibly worry about leeches and falling trees and squishy berries when the greatest danger on this walkway was grammatical ignorance? I cringed my way through this apostrophe apocalypse (which was accompanied by an equally ugly calamity of comma splicing), feeling woeful and frightened for the state of human intelligence, until I looked a little closer. My heart leaped. Could it…could it be? It appeared that some of the miscreants had been captured, stabbed out, scribbled over. Something was coming back to me…the other sign! There had been another warning sign at the trailhead! What did it say, what did it say…oh! That’s right, I could murder things with my bare hands! And that was exactly what previous grammarian passersby had done. They had manually retaliated. Sometimes they wielded pens and sometimes they had only their fingernails, but whatever their means, they’d battled on, their murderous touch avenging these insults to the English language.

I wasn’t alone in this fight. I wasn’t the only one who delighted in being that unsolicited smart ass who corrects other people’s grammar. There was hope!

…if only I’d thought to bring a pen, too.

Okay. Time out. In all seriousness, I’m dismayed that a long established and reputable business like Scenic World would willfully present these grammatical mistakes. I only posted two examples, but there were quite a few more. But it’s just a few apostrophes, you say. Yeah, it’s a few apostrophes that could have been corrected in a matter of seconds, and the fact that they weren’t is lazy and sloppy. Moreover, it’s not like we’re talking difficult grammatical concepts here. The it’s/its distinction is a lesson from primary school, which makes it all the more unprofessional—and embarrassingly so—that it shows up here. Scenic World puts such a commendable amount of effort into their presentation (roller coaster scrapyard notwithstanding). To fall on this final hurdle of dotting Is and crossing Ts is just silly and unfortunate.

C’mon, Scenic World.

 

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Annnnnd breathe.

Okay. Time in.

 

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Somehow I sense that I’ve just moved from the “no guaranteed answer” list to the “no answer, guaranteed” list.

Better cap the red pen and join the queue for the Scenic Cableway, then.

 

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The cableway joined the Scenic World lineup in 2000. Like the railway, it boasts a “steepest of” superlative; in this case, it is the steepest aerial cable car in the southern hemisphere.

 

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That afternoon, it was also the loudest cable car in the southern hemisphere, if not the world.

Having caught up with the vociferous flock from which we’d distanced ourselves earlier, we wound up at the back of a positively stentorian queue whose volume only intensified once compacted within the cable car’s enclosed space. It was a din not unlike that of a heated quarrel on a talk show, except that it was composed of laughter, jovial chatter, and the shutter sounds of smartphone cameras instead of shrill bickering.

Knowing resistance was futile, we wedged ourselves into an available space on the side of the car facing the valley and watched the trees drop off beneath us.

 

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I should probably mention it was scenic.

 

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Yup. Scenic view. From the Scenic Cableway. At Scenic World.

 

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Wait…

 

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Holy crap, it really was scenic!

 

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With everyone else admiring the panorama of mountains and nature and other normal people scenic interests, Richard and I fixated on the profusion of weeds, dirt and fractured metal below. The other bits of Orphan Rocker I’d seen, although shedding flakes of paint like dead skin if they weren’t already covered in leprotic lesions of rust, had at least been intact. These broken segments, on the other hand, signified something terminal; something too far beyond curability. The track was mutilated like a set of hands had given it a lethal Indian burn, twisting until the rail snapped; a pathetic brown stub protruded from the rupture like an artery that had bled out long ago; the jagged anti-rollbacks were like the gnarled teeth of a broken jaw. The scene seemed a somber admission of reality, the irreversibly mangled metal quietly shutting down any lingering ambiguity on Orphan Rocker‘s fate. Of course, given its history, its fate was already a foregone conclusion—but somehow, seeing it like that made it seem more real.

It was like that broken track embodied the broken dream.

And yet, oddly, there was so much more of it that still seemed frozen in time, as though it was just waiting to be dusted off and returned to an operating life it never had.

 

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From this view, it didn’t look half bad.

 

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In fact, it looked a hell of a lot more operational than some coasters I’ve been on, like this Togo beauty whose structural integrity is definitely not questionable in the slightest.

 

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The anti-rollbacks even looked fresh.

 

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There was a vehicle of some description on the track, although judging from Richard’s 2008 photos, it hasn’t budged from this spot in years.

 

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If you can ignore the undergrowth seeping beneath it, as well as that stranded vehicle, it’s possible to imagine a car will come rocking up that lift any minute.

 

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But it’s a temporary illusion. At the top of the lift, the footpath crosses close enough to see the rust stains again…

 

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And then you come to this lift mechanism, which has no fucking way written all over it.

 

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Not that it doesn’t make for good coaster porn, though. I am fairly sure this was part of the mechanism in the photo above. I am 100% sure I squealed with delight at the sight of it. I am 200% sure you have been doing the same for the last five photos.

 

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So go get a tissue, because here’s a closeup.

 

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Better make that two.

 

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Whole box.

(Well, this is the entire reason you clicked on this post in the first place, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want to leave you disappointed now, would I?)

What so struck me about this lift mechanism was that it was all still there—gears, cables, anti-rollbacks, everything. It was like one of those photos of an abandoned building’s interior, where everyday items like dishes and books and toys lay amidst crumbling walls, debris-strewn floors and ceilings mottled with mold and peeling paint. The building’s decay betrays the passage of time, yet the items within defy it. So it was here: the rust, the peeling paint, the broken track—they were all casualties of prolonged neglect, but here was the lift mechanism fully intact, a reminder that someone once cared; someone once invested a lot of energy into intricately engineering this ride—and that someone switched it off at some point long ago, where it has remained inert for who knows how long, just like those dishes and toys remain frozen at the spot of their last contact with human hands. Those objects are often the only shred of human presence left in a place, the only pieces that hint at life and activity.

 

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Here, though, there was one big difference: the place was not abandoned. The park was crawling with people. Orphan Rocker isn’t notable for its hinting at former life in an empty wasteland. It’s notable because it’s the only dead thing in an otherwise lively and bustling park. It’s a blemish, if you will. It’s not listed on the park map, but it’s impossible to miss because it sticks out like a Halloween decoration someone forgot to take down.

Which brings me back to my earlier point: why does Scenic World refuse to acknowledge Orphan Rocker for what it is through their decades-long insistence that it will become something someday?

 

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It was a mystery to ponder as we joined the queue for the Scenic Skyway. That and where the Orphan Rocker station was. Richard and I had spent a good portion of our visit poring over an (un-markered) park map trying to figure out where the circuit began. Since the coaster wasn’t listed on the map (not that we’d have seen it anyway thanks to Scenic World’s handmade map lamination service), we’d been doing our best to piece together the layout from what we’d seen, but so far, no dice. It was one thing to see the track, but if I could steal a glimpse at the cars (I’d seen them in other trip reports), well, let’s just say you’d do well to get another box of tissues ready. I resolved to find out after our skyway ride.

 

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One of the first things you see upon entering Scenic World is one of the skyway’s old vehicles. The Scenic Skyway opened in 1958 and underwent a major renovation in 2004 to increase its capacity. Indeed, if its lengthy queue was any indication, it is the most popular attraction on the roster. It comprises the bulk of the park’s publicity and promotional photographs, and rightly so: there is hardly a better way to advertise a place called Scenic World than with a shot of a skyway cable car amid a vista of mighty boulders, stately waterfalls and verdant valleys.

The photographs usually depict the bright yellow vehicle against a deep blue sky, but today, the latter was not to be. It had been cloudy and gloomy all afternoon with a few spits of rain, but the weather had really begun to deteriorate by the time we boarded.

 

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The low lying clouds, however, did not greatly detract from the overall ride experience. In fact, they were rather…hmmm…let’s say…let’s say they were scenic. That’s a good word choice. Scenic. The clouds were scenic. The clouds were scenic in their own right.

 

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And with their level of supreme scenic-isity, they lent an air of mystery to the ride. Not to be left out from its siblings, this attraction is also a superlative: it is the highest cable car in Australia, riding a whopping 885 feet above the Jamison Valley floor. For comparison’s sake, the Stratosphere SkyJump in Las Vegas—the largest attraction of its type in the world (think of it as a vertical zip line)—is thirty feet shorter. For the non-enthusiast audience still reading this for some reason, that’s just shy of three Statues of Liberty (or six, if we’re not including the base and pedestal). Also, let me just take this opportunity to point out that the original gondola from 1958 was made of marine plywood. PLYWOOD. Now, as far as I can tell, the only upshot to crossing an 885 foot deep chasm in that crate would have been knowing that if it became your casket, you’d at least go out in style—it was painted bright pink.

 

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It’s one thing to look at the treetops directly beneath you (which you can do because down the middle of the gondola is an electrostatic glass floor, which is a fancy way of saying the floor transforms from opaque to transparent during the crossing. It’s the only such floor in the world, which means that if nothing else, you can stagger away knowing you’ve experienced a truly unique form of vertigo. That’s worth a souvenir t-shirt in the gift shop, I’m sure).

But there was something about passing directly through the clouds that amplified that perception of height. The gondola had both solid and exposed sides. We opted for the latter, my arms prickling with goosebumps each time a thick whiteout enshrouded the gondola in damp and dewy mist. The clouds moved swiftly, the way they do when a front moves out (or, to illustrate it even better while simultaneously brightening your day, the way they do in the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and being a part of it made the journey well deserving of the name Scenic Skyway (even if—regrettably, it must be said—that sky was not as scenic as it might have been had it offered views of African or European swallows carrying coconuts). 

When we weren’t playing cloud peekaboo, though, we did catch some pretty rad views:

 

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We were able to see Katoomba Falls without black marker bleeding through it.

Fun fact: The water from the falls takes six days to reach the Sydney water supply.

 

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We got a closer look at this zigzag rock formation, known as the Three Sisters. Their names are Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo. The Aboriginal legend—or at least one of them—goes that the three sisters fell in love with some dudes from a neighboring tribe, but their overly xenophobic tribal laws forbade intertribal marriage. Instead of thinking outside the box, the tribes decided that warfare over this matter was a better use of everyone’s time. (Basically, it was a different form of the marriage equality issues today, where people whose personal wellbeing is in no way affected by the marriages in question for some reason become desperate to feel persecuted, and so they proceed to waste their time blindly quoting some ambiguous religious dogma in a pathetic attempt to justify their myopic beliefs. It was that sort of thing.) As the fighting intensified, the sisters were turned to stone in an effort to protect them. Unfortunately for them—or fortunately, considering they were stuck in such a draconian society—the only guy who could turn them back into humans died in battle, leaving them to stand forever on Mother Nature’s red carpet, posing for eager shutterbugs and #blessed assholes the world over.

Fun fact: Supposedly this legend is complete bollocks. I don’t just mean the *slightly* improbable lithic sorcery business. I mean the entire premise of it being an Aboriginal legend to begin with. Dr. Martin Thomas, a historian at the Australian National University, argues in his book The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains that it’s possible “the story is the creation of a white man, intended to bestow upon the landmark some added ‘colour’.” Apparently the guy who originally published it didn’t acknowledge any Aboriginal informants, suggesting rather strongly that he made the whole thing up. Yup. Those stunning megaliths may be yet another symbol of a white person appropriating minority culture for his own glory. Doesn’t that just feel warm against your cheek?

 

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Scenic as waterfalls and passive aggressive ethnocentrism may be, however, they couldn’t compete with this. I was impatient to embark on my Orphan Rocker station quest. When we docked back at the skyway’s station platform, I asked the guide what he knew.

Fun fact: You can put your tissues away.

“I don’t know,” the guide answered. “But I can find out for you…”

I leaned in.

“…after my shift.”

Oh.

“But you can go downstairs,” he continued. “There’s a guy wearing a big hat. If you ask him, he would know.”

Alrighty then. It was time to kick this mission into high gear.

We headed inside and almost immediately, I noticed a man wearing one of those wide brimmed Outback hats and a shirt the same shade of red the other employees were wearing. I watched as he stepped outside to one of the viewing platforms with another staff member. They were the only people out there, as the rain had now become a steady shower, but I figured the answer I sought was worth getting a little wet. Richard disagreed. I was not exactly thrilled at sailing solo on the S.S. Let’s Expose Your Embarrassing Levels of Coaster Nerdism, but needs must. Just as I was about to approach, however, I noticed the man with the hat was wearing the same wristband I was. He wasn’t a staff member.

Needless to say, I jumped ship pretty quickly.

Unable to locate the hat guy, Richard and I had one more go at the map along with a few forays out in the rain, but we just could not piece it together. With our time running out, I made one more attempt with the three guys at the ticket counter.

“I thought it was right out there,” said one, gesturing toward the entrance doorway where it most definitely was not. No one in the trio knew where this loading platform was (although one did say the carriages are no longer on the track anyway), so instead I asked the fundamental question: what’s the real deal with Orphan Rocker, anyway? “Believe it or not,” another of them replied, “it’s in the long term plans to rebuild it.” Okay, the usual party line. Nothing I hadn’t heard before, but then he continued and things got interesting. They’re still working on paying off the Scenic Skyway, he said. After that, a complete rebuild of Orphan Rocker is in the plans. The reason they haven’t torn it down is because a coaster built from scratch would necessitate filing a new ride permit, a step they could bypass if they replace the track sections individually. I thanked him for the information and we mulled it over as we climbed to the top of the parking garage for one last attempt at finding the station platform.

 

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(We never found it. Only when I was researching for this post did I find the answer (this is an excellent set of photos, by the way. Well worth browsing through). It was located beside the Scenic Railway station, presumably the one on top of the escarpment. This is a shot looking down the track toward that station. I’m guessing that it’s somewhere down there, but unfortunately I missed my opportunity to take a closer look.) 

Back in the car, Richard was the first to speak. “I don’t see how they could still be paying off the skyway, considering what they charge for admission and how many people are here.” It confused me, too. I’d seen a sign saying the attraction had reopened in 2005 after a lengthy refurbishment. It seemed odd that they would still be paying for that ten years later. Maybe the staff member meant the more recently renovated railway? Then again, he was really young. His voice was thick with that nasally pubescent tone typical of the hormonal swell of trouser awkwardness and bad haircuts that is every middle school corridor in the world. It’s possible he was just incorrectly repeating things he thought he’d heard.

But the whole thing just reeked of weirdness. Keeping a useless pile of metal just to avoid reapplying for a permit? Cheerfully reciting the long term development line, as though failing to notice that thirty years have passed since the first time it was used? It’s just weird.

In the park’s defense, it’s clear that “long term development” isn’t an empty phrase. The Scenic Skyway went under the knife ten years ago; the Scenic Railway had its turn in 2013. Both of these were undertakings requiring an enormous investment of time, money and manpower that necessarily overshadowed everything else. Moreover, both renovations addressed capacity concerns; each attraction reopened with larger vehicles to increase throughput. Orphan Rocker, on the other hand, only ever had a handful of two to four seater cars. Even with the most advanced blocking system in the world, it never stood a chance of matching the other attractions’ capacities. Hypothetically, if Scenic World were to get the coaster operational in its original form, they’d need to assess the terrain; replace the track; replace the cars; upgrade its blocking and other safety systems; assemble queues, footpaths and other infrastructure; test it and tweak it as needed; and then finally deal with the paperwork of certification, insurance and the like, not to mention the inevitable unforeseen hurdle or two. That’s a hell of a lot of energy to expend on a ride whose throughput would be a mere sliver of what the park’s other attractions can handle.

In other words, shelving Orphan Rocker was a wise decision. I’m not about to fault Scenic World for doing what’s best for their business in the long term.

 

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The part that puzzles me is why, when Orphan Rocker is so obviously beyond the point of saving, it continues to stand dormant, rusting, peeling and rotting in plain sight. Even more astonishing is that the track runs right above the car park entrance. Surely if we’re talking sound business decisions, there’s something a bit mad in letting this decrepit metal carcass be the first thing your guests see. Sure, on a personal level, I think the sight is hauntingly beautiful. It is the reason we came to Scenic World, after all, and I don’t regret for a minute that we cut out time in Sydney to see it. However, I’m a coaster enthusiast. I’m a minority. My going squeeee over an SBNO coaster is meaningless.

Of course, the same could be said for my analysis in this post. And hey, maybe the average park guest barely registers the coaster’s existence. That in itself, though, makes my point all the more relevant. If no one is even noticing it anymore, if no one is interested in it, if spending the money to fix it is only going to result in a capacity nightmare—then seriously, what possible incentive is there to keep it? I can’t deny that I would feel a twinge of pity were it demolished, but from a business perspective, Orphan Rocker seems an enigma. A disconcerting enigma.

 

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In never elaborating on their rote party line, in never revealing exactly why Orphan Rocker failed to open in the first place, in pretending the ride is still under construction, in remaining seemingly oblivious to the corroding heap of scrap metal on their property, Scenic World comes across as incapable of accepting reality. It’s like they can’t admit that it’s over, that it has been over for a long time. Orphan Rocker is Miss Havisham’s mouldering wedding cake: an unrealized dream that’s become an avatar of delusion. The longer the clocks stay stopped, the more blatant the denial seems. Its overall failure doesn’t so much stem from its missteps three decades ago as it does from its present day identity crisis. It’s the corporeal versus the ethereal, the physical reality versus the contrived illusion.

 

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It’s supposed to be something it’s not, but what it actually is seems fastidiously ignored.

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. After all, back in May this photo emerged from the Australian Amusement, Leisure and Recreation Association’s National Trade Exhibition and Conference showing Anthea Hammon with Premier’s Jim Seay. Naturally, the enthusiast community was abuzz with speculation. Was this a sign that the project was finally moving forward? If Premier was called in, would they do a complete rebuild? How would they maximize capacity? Can we have some LSMs, please? Not a peep has been heard since then, though that’s hardly a surprise given Scenic World’s notoriously tight lipped approach to the Orphan Rocker question. I can only base my interpretation on what I observed at the park and researched in writing this post, and one photo after thirty years of inactivity isn’t convincing enough to alter my admittedly bleak and critical perceptions.

But I so very, very much hope I’m proven wrong. If this turned out to be an Australian Flying Turns, then, well, holy shit. That may be worthy of letting a few renegade apostrophes evade my wrath…well, temporarily, at least.

Besides, some LSMs perched on the cliff edge would be awfully scenic, don’t you think?

 

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But for now, things continue unchanged. The Orphan Rocker legend of ultimate roller coaster failure endures. And enveloped in its lore of rumors, secrecy, skepticism and rust; withering beneath the weight of underbrush and conflicting identities, it remains broken, silent, lifeless…

 

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…and forever elusive.

*

*

* * *

Okay, okay, okay: who’s ready for a coaster that is actually, seriously, for real a credit and actually, seriously, for real obtainable?

Luna Park Sydney

An actual, serious, for real obtainable credit at last, you ask?

 

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Psyyyych!

 

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Too bad!

 

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Looks like you’ll be waiting a little longer.

hahahaha, aren’t I just so full of the lolz?

Anyway.

The recipe for our evening arrival at Luna Park Sydney called for a heaping scoop of pre-planning, a pinch of serendipity, a few ingredient modifications, and a batch of soup dumplings.

The recipe for the closed coaster called for a heaping scoop of disagreeable maintenance scheduling, a pinch of bad luck, and a few ingredients that were both out of stock and unfortunately non-substitutional. Soup dumplings were optional.

Just like the Scoopon promotion I’d found for Adventure World, I struck gold with Luna Park Sydney when I happened upon a deal on their website called “Lunacy After 6 P.M.” where I could buy two unlimited ride passes for the price of one. The catch was that they could only be used Friday and Saturday evenings during school term, which was a blow to my inner goddess of frugality when I realized our itinerary had us at the park on Friday afternoon. Oh well, I’d thought. Perhaps this was payback for all the nasty things I’d said when I worked in retail about the extreme couponers who’d show up at my register five minutes before closing.

(PSA: Don’t be that asshole. You’re already enough of an asshole when you think you’re too special for closing times to apply to you, but if you pull that couponing shit at the same time and refuse to let me go home to feed my dogs just so you can haggle over 20 cents when I point out your coupon for paper plates expired two months ago, you’d better be glad that things like “death glares” or “murderous gazes” remain figurative expressions only. This has been a message from the Association of Every Cashier Ever.)

But then I remembered I’m dating someone who can have a full trip plan concocted within two hours of a “hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we went to [X]” (I’m serious. Parks, flights, hotels, car rentals—he’ll have it mapped and ready to go, even if it’s just a hypothetical trip idea, while there I am in the next room fretting all evening over an Oxford comma). Sure enough, Richard successfully finagled our schedule to accommodate the deal (hence our early start at TreeTop and then powering straight on through the four hour round trip to Katoo Ka-TOOOOOM-ba) and, just to ensure we didn’t arrive that little bit too early, he put in a dinner stop at Din Tai Fung.

And so it was that we set off, full of soup dumplings, and proceeded to play a round of hide and seek with the correct turnoff to the car park…

 

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…(which would have concluded much faster if Luna had put this sign on the roadway, which would have saved us from Karen’s relentless recalculating…recalculating…recalculating…)

…and eventually sidled up to a nightmare.

And no, I don’t mean the torment of traveling over 17,000 kilometers to learn that one of the world’s rarest coaster types closed only three days prior for its two month annual maintenance.

 

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I mean this awful thing.

Luna Park Sydney, like its sister park in Melbourne, is famous for greeting and terrorizing guests with this grinning satanic monstrosity. It is known simply as the Face and, despite looking like one of those demonic ventriloquist dummies you see in horror films, it has been the park’s trademark since opening day in October 1935. Its inspiration was the equally horrifying Funny Face that menaced Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park with its freakishly distended dentures in the early 1900s. Why you’d pick an icon that looks like a Godzilla-sized Fats and pair it with your “Just for Fun” tagline is beyond me—personally I’d go for something a little less evocative of the whole creeper-luring-children-into-a-van-with-promises-of-candy-and-puppies thing—but somehow this obscene caricature has come to personify the heart and soul of this park.

In fact, the Face is now in its eighth generation, which is downright fucking incredible considering some of its previous incarnations:

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See, Luna Park doesn’t go for traditional things like billionaire rodents who are more famous than you’ll ever be or doe-eyed princesses or dancing chocolate bars or Holidogs or even uninspired licensed Peanuts characters. No, Luna Park Sydney has instead built an image for itself with such lovable countenances as:

  • Jack Nicholson’s “Heeere’s Johnny” face (1968)
  • A glowing, white-eyed alien demon like something that’s escaped from Midwich (1978)
  • The simply dreadful and rather uncomfortably named Mr. Lips that dominated late ’90s American pumpkin carving (1935)
  • Steve Buscemi’s eyes (1948)
  • Beavis and Butthead laughing (1958)
  • That guy in RoboCop who got drenched in nuclear waste and melted (also 1958)
  • Jaden Smith (1958 was not a good year)

 

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And even once you pass beneath these disturbingly detailed eyelashes that look like a nest of spider legs about to scrabble out of those crazed eye sockets…

 

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…the Face never stops watching.

 

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It’ll creep up on you in the most unlikely of places.

 

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It’ll multiply, change form, and make you wonder just what kind of recreational items Luna had in mind for channeling all that fun.

 

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It’ll attempt to metamorphose into a sun but instead wind up looking like an orange paper plate that could probably take out any closing time couponer, because if that’s not a bloodthirsty gaze bordering on the literal, I don’t know what is.

 

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And it will intimidate the ever loving crap out of you.

 

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“You will ride more rides just for fun. You will ride more rides just for fun. You will ride more rides just for fun.”

And if that’s not enough to mess with you, or at least make you question how in God’s name someone decided a wildly grinning sociopath made for a better mascot than even, say, a chimpanzee rubbing its testicles and occasionally flinging feces about, then the gift shop is replete with items guaranteed to traumatize you from head to foot.

 

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(Not that the chimpanzees let such an oversight keep them from having fun, mind you.)

 

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All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten your little toes after they’ve marinated in the foul stench of sweat, foot cheese and Kylie Jenner lips found in these slippers.

 

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By the plushy toys at your thumbs, something wicked this way comes…if you dare snuggle in this unfettered lunacy of Luna Belles and Luna Bobs.

And if that’s still not enough to infiltrate even the sweetest dream, then just you wait until we get to Luna Park Melbourne.

But right now, we’re in Sydney, where the only thing more discomfiting than the Face was the closed attractions sign in the ticket window. Such signs are the bane of every enthusiast’s existence, the things we peer at with trepidation followed by either a sigh of relief or a groan in dismay. Now, I have to hand it to myself here. See, I’ve been very lucky these past few years. Besides kiddie coasters where I’m over the height limit, my major coaster misses have been rare. As a result, well, you could say I’m not always so great about handling closed credits (unless it’s a park where everything is just so generally terrible that it feels like somebody cast me in a sitcom without me realizing and then I can’t help but join in the studio audience laughter. Looking at you, Six Flags over Texas). To my credit, I’m much better at it than when I was younger. For example, I had no idea coasters had height requirements until age eight when my head was two inches beneath the dark blue line for Morey’s Great Nor’Easter. How did I react? I sat beneath the sign and cried. (Goodness, if only I’d known.) Three years later, I moped and sulked through my entire day at Kennywood because the Steel Phantom was down due to technical problems (dear God, if only I’d known!!!). And so, when Richard waved me over to get my wristband, I could have let myself get royally pissed off when he pointed to the sign and uttered a curt “bad news.” But I’m a big girl now, or at least I pretend to be sometimes, and I even surprised myself when my “oh no!” came out as chipper as a Poppin’ Fresh commercial. Annual maintenance, the ticket girl said. It would be down until April. A suboptimal situation to be sure, but what could we do? We’d already bought the tickets online. I can’t say it was with the greatest enthusiasm that I offered my arm to be wristbanded, and I admit I did indulge afterward with about seven minutes of silent self pity, but there was no sense in ruining the evening.

 

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Let’s remember where we are, after all :)

And so, unable to ride the Wild Mouse, we did the next best thing:

 

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We queued for the Ferris Wheel, obviously.

 

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Obviously, because the wheel is necessary not only for getting a full overview of the coaster, but also for getting any decent view of it at all. There is no head-on shot of the coaster from the midway. The best you can get is something like this awkward rear angle, and even then, the buildings obscure too much.

 

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Instead of being a focal point, the coaster is always huddling in the background like Aunt Sue trying to hide her chins in the annual family photo.

 

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The only way to see it all is to go up.

 

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Luna Sydney’s Wild Mouse is distinctive in that it’s one of only five wooden wild mice left in the world (the geographical distribution of these rides is also rather remarkable—there’s one at Blackpool, two in Australia, and then two in—of all places—Indonesia (though even these two started life in Australia)). This is another ride where I’m unsure of its opening year. It’s listed as 1959 on rcdb and Parkz, but according to the park history book I picked up in the gift shop (Luna Park: Just for Fun by Sam Marshall; although the text could have used a little help, it contains an unparalleled collection of photos and is well worth buying, certainly more so than those possessed plushies), it wasn’t until 1962 that park manager Ted Hopkins purchased the plans for the ride at the Seattle World Trade Fair and shipped home a car for local manufacturers to duplicate. Parkz words the history a bit differently, noting that Hopkins licensed the design from an unknown European manufacturer. Combining both sources, I get the impression that Hopkins licensed the plans before buying them. Given that he allegedly first saw the ride on a trip to the U.S. in 1958, it seems reasonable to conclude 1959 is the correct year.

The Wild Mouse has not been a permanent fixture since 1959, however. In 1970, it was replaced (but not demolished, thankfully) with a higher capacity Schwarzkopf Wildcat that ran until 1979, when the park closed following a devastating fire. I’m not sure when the Wild Mouse resumed operation at Luna Park, but it had an on/off attendance record even after it did, thanks to a supplementary gig at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. But it’s always come back, just like Luna Park has always come back.

 

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For such a tiny strip of land—you’re looking at the bulk of it here—Luna Park Sydney has borne an inordinate amount of trouble throughout its history. Problems began even before it was built. After the Harbour Bridge was completed in 1932, the city council sought development proposals for the land along the northern shoreline. At the time, there was another Luna Park at Glenelg, a seaside suburb of Adelaide whose residents were having a jolly old time poo-pooing the things that made people jolly (these residents being, I presume, distant relatives of an ex-boyfriend who once told me flat out that going on holiday was for old people and that he would rather spend his days at work. Didn’t take long to slap the “ex” label on him after that). Fed up with these Negative Nancys, the entrepreneurs behind Luna Park Glenelg turned their eye to Sydney. They didn’t fare much better at first. Sydney had its own population of Gradgrinds whose disdain for anything not eminently practical was best exemplified by one Reverend Calder, who apparently considered merriment and debauchery as one and the same: “If a Luna Park of any description were erected here it might become a menace to the morals and well-being of the people of the district,” he complained. And the consequences of having a little fun?

 

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“There would be nightly orgies there which could not be checked.”

 

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But, despite such completely reasonable and totally rational fears (I mean who knows, maybe he’d been to Clementon), fun won. On October 4, 1935, Luna Park Sydney opened its gates.

And, for the next few decades, fun thrived. Luna Park Sydney was the happenin’ spot, especially during WWII when servicemen visited either with their girlfriends or with the intention of finding one. (Probably much to Reverend Calder’s dismay, this did not result in nightly orgies.) By all accounts, Luna was the epitome of the classic amusement park, representative of an era when brass bands and dancing were as much a draw as the rides; an era where an air gust from a funhouse floor had girls either blushing or pretending they were Marilyn Monroe; an era where dark rides meant a rare chance for illicit kisses and illicit other things because Netflix and chill wasn’t a thing yet (still no full blown orgies, though. Sorry to disappoint you, Calder); an era where people for some reason failed to notice that clowns are fucking terrifying.

 

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(Then again, what are clowns when you have this thing staring you down?)  

For the most part, Luna’s early years went swimmingly.

And then along came the screen.

Today, it’s smartphone and laptop screens that wrap us in an antisocial LCD glow of distraction and time wasting. In the 1950s and 1960s, the television first debuted to the world that hypnotizing allure of the screen. Screens joined forces with rising automobile ownership and created a formidable duo that demoted Luna Park’s stature in the local entertainment lineup. As its market fluctuated, so too did the park’s stability; when a fire in the Ghost Train claimed seven lives in 1979, the gates shut and the park crumpled. For the next few decades, Luna Park Sydney was the hapless ribbon on a tug of war rope, yanked and shoved between ownership changes, lease negotiations, grassroots preservationists, soulless idiots, and all kinds of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. Amidst this kerfuffle was a bipolar track record that alternated between bad luck and good fortune; bulldozing and rebuilding; closures and reopenings.

In this constant game of red light, green light, the most recent light change was in 2004 when the Face finally yawned after eight years of hibernation. It hasn’t been a smooth ride since then, owing to some fools who complain about “noise pollution” despite the fact that they’re the ones who chose to live next to an amusement park, but Luna Sydney has nonetheless remained in continuous operation. (It’s worth noting that it’s also remained orgy-free.)

 

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And, on the whole, I’d rather have a park with a closed coaster than no park at all.

 

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There was no sense in brooding over a missed credit, anyway. Luna Park had strict rules about that sort of thing.

 

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The only thing to do was enjoy the view, apparently in a friendly and extroverted fashion.

 

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Hey! Hey, hi! Hi, Sydney! We hung out last night, remember? It was super fun! Wasn’t it super fun? Gosh, it was really super fun. I’ll send you a friend request! Okay? Hiiiiiiiiii!!!!

 

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LOTS OF STUPID ASS HASHTAGS AND OTHER ATTENTION SEEKING BULLSHIT ABOUT BEING ARTSY AND DEEP NORTH FACE NAMASTE LEGGINGS PUMPKIN SPICE LATTES

Upon exiting the wheel, we made a mad dash to mop up any missed photo angles before daylight disappeared, which is to say Richard made a mad dash to mop up missed photo angles while I gazed contently across the harbour because we’d reached that level of daylight where my camera might as well have been aiming through a pair of drunk goggles.

Then Richard’s heart got a workout he hadn’t bargained for.

 

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And that was because his blood was all fire burn and cauldron bubble when he beheld this.

 

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What I thought about Luna Park Sydney’s Carousel:
        This is fine.

What Richard thought about Luna Park Sydney’s Carousel:
        Out, damned ride! Out, I say!

Who doth commit this base atrocity?
‘Tis gone, that wondrous machine of days past!
‘Tis gone, the days of gall’ping hand carved steeds,
their graceful dance, their steam fueled prance, and oh!
That Gavioli organ, eight y’nine keys
of joy, of wonder, magic, song and light!

 

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This new machine: ’tis cheap, ’tis nasty. Doth
modern’ty slash the beauty, wreck the charm,
and maim time’s elegance with evil scythe?
This Rundle ousts magnificence, supplants
sophistication, signifies an act—
An act of cult’ral vandalism! Lewd,
disgusting, tacky, fiberglass copout!

 

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The horses, all the same; identical
expressions twirling, making cheerless turns
’round kitsch; ’round tawdry website decals slapped
with neither taste nor tact, sans serif fonts
in chintzy advertisements taking pride
of place instead of Gavioli. Bland
recorded music pipes from speakers, tunes
now robbed of gusto, lacking spirit. Pah!
How, how dear Luna! How canst thou blaspheme
like this, despoiling beauty, razing grace?
Thou art a monster, blind and sinful! Fie!
O woe! O woe! ‘Tis hopeless! Fie upon’t, foe!
I mourn that carousel of old, I sigh.
‘Tis true thy whims shan’t change. Alas! Alas!

…which was a pretty reasonable reaction.*

* Actual wording may have differed.

Richard had quite the bee in his bonnet over this carousel. To me, it was nothing special, but nothing awful either—at least it had music, even if it was from a recording. Richard insisted, however, that it was “all sorts of crap” and what was there during his 2008 visit was leaps, bounds, and gallopings-to-an-89-key-organ better. With nothing to compare it to, the best I could do was humor him, which I did until I saw this video.

And, just, what.

 

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Guys, Luna Park Sydney got rid of this hand carved carousel built in England circa 1900 that still had its original steam engine (okay, it wasn’t used anymore, but it was still there), and had an enormous organ mounted in its center.

Guys, Luna Park Sydney got rid of a hand carved carousel over one hundred years old with a real working organ and replaced it with a generic and charmless fiberglass production model.

Now, this carousel hadn’t been at Luna Park since 1900. It only came to Australia in the 1990s and I presume it was on hand when Luna Park reopened its gates in 2004—but that doesn’t diminish its value.

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the Rundle model was just a stand-in while the original was out for a refurbishment. If it’s a permanent fixture, however, I need hardly offer more Shakespearean oaths* to convey such an abhorrent disappointment. Who gets rid of a treasure like that? I mean, unless there was a really, really good reason, say perhaps a spider living in it that necessitated torching the whole thing, which would then be totally understandable…but seriously, who actually does that?

*but I will anyway because it’s fun: Rundle, thou lump of foul deformity!

It’s almost as baffling as the twatwaffles who keep bitching about noise levels despite choosing to live next to an amusement park that was there first.

 

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Meet their latest darling.

 

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Hair Raiser was Luna Sydney’s 2013 addition. It’s one of those diabolical A.R.M./Larson Super Shot creations that dominates the drop tower class for three reasons. First, its vehicle has overhanging panels that obscure the tower from on-ride view, thereby making it impossible to gauge how much longer you’ll climb. Add to that the vehicle’s unnervingly slow ascent, then finish it all off with an exceptionally abrupt drop—the vehicle doesn’t pause for even a second at the top, and since you can’t see the tower anyway, there’s no warning whatsoever when the drop will come—and you have something truly wicked.

It’s a ride where people scream, people laugh, people whoop, people swear. It’s a ride where people have fun.

The problem is that some nearby residents frown upon people having fun. In fact, they are as grievously offended by fun as today’s militant feminists are by things like taking responsibility for their actions.

And also like today’s militant feminists, and indeed like many coddled millennials, who will desperately search for things to be offended by and even make stuff up to stroke their sense of self importance, these local residents went skylarking and pissing themselves in glee when it was discovered that Luna Park had built Hair Raiser without approval. What a boon—here was a new excuse to flap their lips, plump their feathers, and strut about in a melodramatic revelry of self-appointed victimization!

It wasn’t the first time these ass tubas dropped trou and shat out imbecilic condemnation on the park.

 

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Prior to Hair Raiser, they ganged up like a bunch of catty teenaged girls to bully Luna Park over the Big Dipper, an Arrow looper that headlined the park’s 1995 resuscitation after several years of dormancy. The coaster was part of a smattering of new rides meant to modernize the park and revive business, but its role as a ride earned far less publicity than its role as whipping boy. Those who slung the mud whined about its noise levels, their ears apparently much more delicate than those of the people who lived within hearing range of the far noisier wooden coaster that stood on the same spot for over forty years. For months, the Big Dipper was embroiled in legal feuds. Local buzzkills invoked a slew of irascible allegations, faulting the park’s failure to implement enough noise reduction features and drawing all sorts of fancy statistical charts to back their claims, I guess the idea being that a snazzy pie graph would convince officials that being a Dementor was right as rain.

At the same time, the government was orchestrating some fiscal gymnastics that upset Luna’s financial solidarity. It also didn’t help that the weather that year was uncooperative and attendance suffered. Eventually all the negativity came to a head. The Panties in a Wad Coalition was all too happy to see not only the coaster close, but the entire park shut down, yet again, in February 1996 (luckily, the Big Dipper found a home at Dreamworld up the road in Coomera, where it still delivers that sweet, sweet Arrow lovin’ today).

Fast forward to the present, and Hair Raiser has landed on the scene like an independent thinker in a TPR forum. The Panties in a Wad Coalition is at it again, mewling for attention with their gripes that the ride is too noisy, “visually offensive,” “visually intrusive,” “an ugly monstrosity” and cause for “headaches, lack of sleep and irritation.” It also seems our old pal Calder has some descendants living in the area: this “hoony” ride, claims one resident, causes “violence on the street and drunken behavior.”

Let me remind you that every single one of these complaints comes from someone who willingly chose to reside next to an amusement park.

It’s not like Luna Park is a new kid on the block. Even though it’s been closed for years at a time, the efforts of park preservationists and supporters have been so widely publicized that you’d have to be truly thick for the park’s reopening(s) to come as a shock, and thicker still to miss the fact that amusement parks tend to be vibrant, lively places.

Now, Luna Park is not entirely in the clear here. They should have gotten proper approval before constructing Hair Raiser. They should have had more sense than automatically assuming their existing planning regulations covered it, as they argued in their defense. They should have installed soundproofing devices on the ride, such as scream shields like those on the now defunct Maliboomer at Disney California Adventure. I can’t feign impartiality in matters concerning amusement parks, but even I must concede that Luna Park’s failure to do these things is a bit of a dick maneuver. I’m also suspicious about their claim that Hair Raiser fit into their existing planning scheme. For a park that’s always been under fire from its neighbors, I can’t help but wonder if they knew all along that Hair Raiser would raise some eyebrows and tempers as well, and so they built the ride without consulting the proper authorities in a deliberate move to evade the inevitable backlash that might have delayed or canceled construction altogether. After all, it’s much easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, right?

However, even if it was an honest mistake, Luna Park still doesn’t emerge in a flattering light here. Besides the fact that it’s awfully careless and unprofessional to just automatically assume you were good to go build a 120 foot tower, the bigger problem here is that they didn’t even try—at least as far as I’m aware—to minimize the ride’s auditory impact on surrounding neighborhoods. It comes off as a big ‘ole Fuck You, and tempting as it is to side with this seemingly passive aggressive retaliation against those longtime whingers, there comes a point with a scream-producing ride like that where you must at least attempt to find a happy medium.

But then, it’s not like their cranky neighbors are any better on moderating this all-or-nothing mentality, either. With the Big Dipper, they made it clear they wouldn’t be happy until it was ripped out entirely. Even court-imposed restrictions on its operational hours weren’t good enough—it had to go, and that was all there was to it. The Hair Raiser issue illustrates that black and white thinking again. News of its unauthorized construction became a podium for disgruntled residents to air their woes to a large audience, and they seized upon it. Now, I must mention that not every resident is against Team Luna; there are some residents who don’t mind the drop tower in the slightest and who applaud it for spurring tourism in the area. The majority of resident voices featured in news articles, however, are staunchly anti-tower. No “I’m not pleased but I respect Luna Park’s right to build,” no “Yeah the screams are loud but that’s the price for living near an amusement park” sorts of opinions—just a very blatant, very stark “Tower=Bad” mindset. There are no ifs, ands or buts. There is no compromise. And it’s at that point that this isn’t about Hair Raiser anymore. It, like the Big Dipper, seems a symptom of a larger problem, and that problem is residents who would rather bitch and moan than face reality.

With the increase of apartments and condos around its borders in the last few decades, Luna Park Sydney is as acquainted with complaints and legal battles as a toddler’s hand is to stickiness and crumbs. And yet, why? Why should their petulant neighbors punish them for adding rides and essentially doing what amusement parks do—indeed, what any business does—to satisfy market demand and generate revenue? (Apart from that, Hair Raiser was Luna Sydney’s first new ride in over a decade, and I’ve heard that even ten-plus years of predictability wasn’t enough to shut up some of these people.) Ultimately, the crux of the problem is the neighbors creating the problem in the first place. They are the ones who chose to live nearby the park, and they are the ones who must deal with the consequences of that choice. As to their preferred method of throwing a tantrum, the fundamental question here is this: does it make any sense for these people to bitch and ballyhoo their playing the victim just because they evidently don’t want to admit responsibility for deciding to move within reach of an amusement park? Being that offended by your own choices but passing the blame onto someone else is beyond all reason.

Neighbors, Luna Park was there first.

 

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Take your self-righteous wallowing to these helpful clowns and get over yourselves.

Besides, if you can fucking afford to live in Milsons Point, then you sure as hell can afford plenty of quieter places.

 

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Luckily for these fools, however, Richard and I are not screamers on drop towers. No, my modus operandi on an A.R.M./Larson tower is holding my breath, gritting my teeth, and bracing for impact.

These towers already have that agonizing climb and thunderclap drop going for them, and those alone are enough to leave me shrugging apologetically at an Intamin Giant Drop. But a good A.R.M./Larson, a really, really good one, adds one more ingredient to the pot, and it’s the most deliciously wicked of them all: aggressive, vicious, ass-blastingly violent airtime.

The A.R.M./Larson at Luna Park Sydney was a really, really good one.

 

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Hair Raiser, like its Super Shot brethren, is not tall. Larson’s website gives a max height of 140 feet for these things. There’s a distinct difference, however, between the actual height of the tower and what the actual height of the tower feels like. The latter correlates directly with how long—and how high—your ass is off the seat.

When Hair Raiser dropped, the first thing I did was bid adieu to my stomach, for it would be staying behind as I journeyed downward. It was kind enough to honor me with a proper sendoff, complete with burning streamers of adrenaline and confetti pops of butterflies.

The second thing I did was note the disparity between where the seat was and where my ass was.

The third thing I did was compute the following equation based on the input from steps one and two:

(Sudden drop + there are several inches between my ass and the seat thanks to these restraints + this burning meteor tail stretching from me to my lost stomach makes me feel funny + brakes there are brakes soon fuck where are the brakes)Pretty sure I‘ve been airborne longer than the first Wright Brothers flight = This Is Not Going To End Well.

And then CRASH. The brakes engaged and gravity served my ass a sound walloping with the seat. If that sounds jarring and unpleasant, it was. But it was also the full stop (…yeah, okay, pun sort of intended) on why the A.R.M./Larson Super Shot is the best drop tower out there: its psychological impact sets it as far above its competitors as its physical stature sets it beneath them. The instantaneous switch from ascent to descent, the abrupt ejection from the seat, the realization of just how high you’re floating above it, the knowledge that the brakes will kick in just as suddenly as the drop, the tensing and bracing because you know a crash landing is inevitable—all of it seems to make time stand still, which makes the drop seem that much longer.

Well, now that we’ve started, I wonder how many other bruises we can accumulate this evening?

 

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Let’s find out.

Welcome to Coney Island Funny Land, the fun park within a fun park that’s the real superstar at this Luna Park. That’s right. The wooden wild mouse doesn’t wear the big cheese crown here. The building behind it does.

Coney Island Funny Land is a play on words: it is the Coney Island at a Luna Park that took inspiration from a Luna Park at Coney Island. It is also one of the only 1930s funhouses left in the world, and with that distinction emerges another flip flop: in an age where frivolous lawsuits are as prevalent as painstakingly effected political correctness, Coney Island Funny Land harks back to an era where political incorrectness wasn’t taken so seriously and could be as easily brushed aside as grit from a scraped knee or elbow.

 

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Along the walls are tokens that we used to live in a world where something like this could exist as the joke it’s meant to be instead of a stimulant for the easily offended to take to their keyboards and waste an evening bellyaching on a Buzzfeed comment section.

 

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It was a time when domestic violence could be droll…

 

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…and voyeurism whimsical…

 

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…and both were perfectly suitable decorations in a place that was barrels of fun.

And what other life lessons could be learned within these walls?

 

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All the practical knowledge a kid could ever want.

Indelicacy, however, is only part of its appeal. Coney Island Funny Land is to funhouses what Oral B’s Satin Tape is to dental floss: unparalleled, top tier, and goddamn glorious. One fondles your gums with such silky, swanky satisfaction that you feel like motherfucking royalty; the other is a palace of sensory opulence rich in old school pride and charm…

 

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…from the original murals of the late artist Arthur Barton, who worked at the park from 1935 to 1970…

 

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…to the wooden penny arcade games…

 

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(I’m not sure if these still work, but they are just so cool nonetheless)…

 

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…to the memory of five year old me begging and begging my mom to buy a can of spinach so I could be strong like Popeye, then taking one look at the green sludge within and promptly granting Mom one of her proudest “I told you so” moments of my childhood.

Most funhouses today are walk-through affairs where you’re ever aware of people behind you and always moving quickly so you’re not That Person who holds up everyone else.

But not here.

 

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Once you pass the obstacles in the entry corridor…

 

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…and the giant, if somewhat phallic-thumbed hands inviting you in…

 

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…the playground unveils itself before you in all its mirthful glory and it’s a free for all—stay as long as you want, partake in as many activities as you want as many times as you want—the floor is yours.

And as for those activities?

 

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Well, there’s the Find Your Way Out Using Finger Prints and Forehead Grease mirror maze.

 

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And the Ye Olde Here’s How Silly You Look When You Walk In Stilettos adventure.

Of course, these are just the milder offerings. After all, we know the best funhouse entertainment comes from activities that carry a high likelihood of hilarious injury.

 

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Which is why there are not one, but two revolving barrels for when you do that thing where you pretend to be a starfish but wind up toppling over and flailing about like an upturned turtle instead.

But even barrels are mild when your funhouse dates from an era when people weren’t afraid of clowns, had better things to do than sue over a paper cut and had to walk fifteen miles to school barefoot and uphill both ways. People back then were tough. I mean, they probably wouldn’t have even been offended by plain red cups at Starbucks during Christmas. They were tough, I tell you.

 

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And so here is the Joy Wheel. The object: seat a bunch of people on a hard wooden disc; spin it really, really fast; and watch as they scrabble about helplessly before centrifugal force lobs them off into the wall.

Some great contusive fun for sure, but we passed in favor of not being the two awkward adults rolling around with children we didn’t know. Instead, I chose a different artist to tattoo my appendages with bruises:

 

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These devil chutes.

Polished wooden ramps glistening white in the overhead lights, they were so tall the ceiling had to be raised to accommodate them and so steep they reminded me why I’ve yet to muster the nerve to try a trap door water slide. Those slippery slopes insinuated disaster. Cataclysmic airtime. Fierce wipeouts. Abundant swearing. Possibly the donation of a few layers of skin.

They were everything a respectable slide should be.

We gathered the straw mats that would be our vehicles of doom and started for the stairs. I had visions of the time I saw a little girl hit the back of her head on the near-vertical slide at Oakwood…er, that is to say the time I heard a little girl hit the back of her head on the near-vertical slide at Oakwood. I’d been waiting on the stairs when there came a thunderous THUNCK, like a hammer whacked against a hollow wall. In seconds a man was at the foot of the slide, soothing his wailing little girl and gently rubbing the crown of her head.

To my left, I watched as a few riders tipped over the ledge and sank like anchors, often with a streak of panicked gibberish (and sometimes very articulate expletives) echoing from their straw mats. I stepped aside as a father holding his son’s hand made a chicken exit.

“Let’s do the smaller slides first,” I suggested. Surely a few runs at a shallower angle would be a good warmup before taking on the beast. That wasn’t wimpy, was it? It was perfectly reasonable, right?

 

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There were three sets of smaller slides, though only one was open, which was the wavy pair on the far left. Indeed, a go on these did shake out some of the jitters—skipping down a series of airtime humps could do no less. I picked up some pretty good speed on the way down and consequently went full sail ahead over the largest hill, which was strategically placed at the very bottom of the slide for maximum wipeout potential.

In what might be the only time in my life I’ll ever say this, I was unfortunately too light. My ass veered to the side a bit, but I didn’t have enough weight behind my momentum to give a dignity-destroying show to onlookers.

 

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(Sorry, dude.)

Richard, on the other hand, handsome and strapping fellow that he is, found his ass subjected to such a staccato beating as he bumped and bounced over each hill that he opted out of slides the rest of the evening.

 

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Which meant I was facing this bad boy alone.

No matter how many times I reminded myself how much I enjoyed the Oakwood slide, how this one wasn’t as steep as the Oakwood slide (at least I don’t think it was), how if I managed to survive that traumatizing incident in the summer of 2006 when I accidentally swallowed a mouthful of aspartame flavored petrol (you might know it by its other name, Diet Pepsi) then for goodness sake, I could handle a damn slide—I couldn’t avoid that oh shit moment when I sat atop the ledge and peeked at the sheer drop beneath me.

It fell off like a cliff. It seemed impossible to slide down something that steep without falling forward and toppling headfirst into the annals of Embarrassing Memories that Keep Me Awake at Night. I had to wait for the previous rider to clear, during which time the adrenaline butterflies I’d left behind at Hair Raiser caught up with me and ingratiated themselves with about as much success as Ted Cruz attempting to look human. The previous rider stumbled out of their straw mat and exited. I thought of the little girl at Oakwood again. Head forward, head forward, head forward, I reminded myself. My fingers tightened around the straw mat’s handles. I pretended my heart wasn’t pounding and waited for the slide attendant to give the okay.

“I like your shoes,” she said.

What? What?

“Oh! Thank you,” I replied, now adding “being totally nonchalant about discussing the merits of my shoes as I sit on the cusp of imminent catastrophe” to my list of things I was pretending.

“Yeah, they’re really nice! What brand are they?”

“New Balance,” I said with an exaggerated smile—you know, the kind of “everything is just dandy!” smile that you do to cover up the fact that everything is most definitely not dandy; the kind of smile you supplement with chirpy babbling because what better way to convince everyone that yup, everything’s totally fine! than by blathering like a loon? “I like the pink in them,” I continued. “That’s why I got them in the first place. I mean, like, I’ve had them a while now and they have holes in them but I don’t care; I like their neutral gray with the hint of color much more than those garish neon sneakers that are so popular these days!” Then a new wave of dread hit me and I stole a glance at the attendant’s sneakers. They were black. Not a garish neon stitch in sight. My face resumed its ridiculous grinning.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” the attendant laughed. “The pink on your shoes is subtle; it’s not overpowering. I like it!”

“Thanks!” I said again, continuing to smile way more broadly than the situation required.

“You’re good to go now,” she said, and so I switched off my brain, scooted forward, and went for it. That’s the only way to approach these things, really. When you get the go-ahead, you just have to react. If you think about it, you hesitate. Fear exploits hesitation. And of course, my trepidation was for naught. The whole thing was over so fast I barely processed what was happening until I came to a smooth stop at the bottom. There was no toppling forward or head thumping or even an epidermal donation—just one swift whoosh that I was all too happy to repeat until the humidity in the building had me dripping so much sweat I decided to abort for the benefit of anyone caught sliding downwind after me. Perhaps this was overly self conscious. After all, I did overhear a dude saying to his friends that “I have to ride this slide in order to maintain my level of manliness!” By that logic, my multiple rides should have left me reeking of supreme manly manliness, and if deodorant ads have taught me anything, it’s that manliness smells like glaciers, bears, and the word BLACK written in capital letters. Nonetheless, I was pleased. If Coney Island Funny Land was an amusement park within an amusement park, then this slide was the star attraction within the star attraction.

 

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Our last ride of the evening was the Tumblebug, a Troika notable for the fact that it’s on a roof…

 

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…and whose means of access is the Big Dipper‘s old entrance building—or, rather, I should say the old entrance building for both Big Dippers. The doomed Arrow looper was built on the spot of a wooden Big Dipper that operated from 1935-1979. It was actually a transplanted ride, having been moved piece by piece from the failed Luna Park in Glenelg. By all accounts it was a pretty rad coaster—it could make enough on a Saturday night to cover the running cost of all the other rides in the park for the rest of the week—but alas, it was demolished in 1981.

Fortunately for me, I love love love HUSS’s Troika Troika Troika, and I was happy to take it as a consolation prize.

Unfortunately for Richard, this Tumblebug tumbled the contents of his stomach a little too energetically for his liking.

 

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And so, sympathetic girlfriend that I am, I decided to get in the spirit of things by eating a toffee caramel waffle cone while gazing at the rides that would make quick work in transforming it into a pavement milkshake because my inner ear decided a couple years ago to substitute its longstanding and perfectly functional “I dare you to do your worst, German fair rides” protocol for a “Just because your face still looks like the Before image in a Clean & Clear commercial doesn’t mean you get to enjoy the other benefits of being young” bitch slap.

 

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For those of you whose eyes and inner ears can still tango without tripping up your stomach, Luna invites you to the dance floor on the Tango Train.

 

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Or you can opt for breakdancing, arachnid style, on the Spider.

 

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HUSS has also got your inverting banana needs met with Moon Ranger.

 

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And then, of course, there is the mother of all things evil…

 

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…where you can stand on the viewing deck above…

 

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…and mourn for the days when this was you…

 

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…before remembering that old fartliness has its own rewards, like ensuring you keep well and clear of the, er, splash zone.

It also reminds you that you have another early start the next morning and had best get going.

So, in the end, the night didn’t go as planned. I hate to miss a credit, especially one so far away, but such is the gamble we enthusiasts take on these trips. It wasn’t a completely wasted evening, though. Luna Park’s bridgeside setting has stuck with me ever since Christmas Day 1995 when “World’s Greatest Roller Coaster Thrills in 3D” became a near permanent resident in our family VCR. I didn’t know then that the Luna footage was from the feeble splutter that was the ill-fated 1995 season, that the park just happened to be caught during a brief resuscitation before it slipped into another long coma. I just thought it was a really cool location for a park and I wanted to visit it someday.

And now, my someday had come, but it never would have come at all if it hadn’t been for the perseverance and tenacity of those dedicated Sydneysiders who never gave up fighting for their little gem’s rightful place next to the bridge. Of course, to them Luna Park was more than its location. It was a Sydney cultural institution. It was childhood. It was magic, whimsy, and the joy of play.

It was just for fun.

Now that my someday had come, I could begin to appreciate all of that, too.  

The only thing was my timing wasn’t quite right.

But that’s okay. It means I have a new someday waiting out there. That’s not such a bad thing for a place exuding so much charm, friendliness, and the kind of old school class that’s becoming ever rarer these days. Maybe I’ll even have a new pair of shoes to model on the slides, too. Until then, though, all I can do is wait and dream about it…

 

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…(but there’s no guarantee they’ll be pleasant or sweet dreams.)

*

*

 

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Okay! OKAY! Yes, yes, I’m getting on with it! Who is ready for an actual, serious, and for real really truly really I promise this time obtainable credit?

Merimbula’s Magic Mountain

What Normal Couples Do On Valentine’s Day:

Prostrate themselves in wanton acts of consumerism at the altar of the goddess Hallmark

What We Do On Valentine’s Day:

Drive ten hours for a Pinfari Zyklon.

A Pinfari Zyklon Richard already had.

A Pinfari Zyklon Richard already had in a park he said he would never visit again in this life because its location halfway between Sydney and Melbourne is awkward and time consuming to reach. Unfortunately for him, he met me. And I’d never been to Australia.

So, let me reiterate this: Instead of doing the hour and a half flight between Sydney and Melbourne like any sane person would do, Richard opted to repeat the ten hour drive between them that he’d done in 2008 just so I could pick up the Pinfari Zyklon along the way. Not some unique B&M or Intamin.

 

A bog standard, run of the mill, production model Pinfari Zyklon. THAT, folks, is romance.

Not that it was intentional. It’s just how the itinerary played out. Richard and I aren’t the sort of couple to obsess over Valentine’s Day, which is to say I am not the kind of girl to guilt trip Richard into buying me some red and pink colored crap just because the calendar happens to say it’s February 14 and I need to post it to Instagram under delusions that somebody actually gives a shit. Still, though, it seemed a fitting narrative for the day.

A fitting narrative of retribution and payback, that is.

The two years Richard and I spent as a long distance couple meant Valentine’s Day together was never a guarantee, but the year before this one we decided to book a long weekend trip to Orlando because Valentine’s Day fell on the Friday of Presidents’ Day weekend (FYI non-Americans, Presidents’ Day is when we celebrate George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays with monster blowout sales at furniture stores).

Richard and I wouldn’t have seen each other since Christmas by that point and our next trip wasn’t until my spring break in March. But a little Valentine’s rendezvous to reinvigorate my senior-capstone-thesis-induced flagging spirits? Well, I did what any rational girl would do: I tried to talk him out of it. February is a foolish month to fly if you’re coming from the East Coast. I have the permanent auditory scarring from hours spent in Southwest’s hold queue to prove it.

Okay, so I didn’t try very hard, it must be said.

“Ten bucks says this flight will be cancelled,” I muttered as my confirmation email from United popped up in my inbox.

My flight was cancelled.

Richard made it to Orlando just fine. I, however, probably supplied enough heat in my seething rage to melt all the snow that covered IAD’s runways, but it was no use. Richard got credit #2000 that weekend. I wrote an annotated bibliography.

But now I was in Australia, and February in Australia means summertime. No snow. No ice. No standing in queues snaking halfway down the terminal waiting to get rebooked by the lone, wretched soul manning the customer service desk. Not this Valentine’s Day. Ohhhhhhh NO, Mother Nature was NOT going to win two years in a row.

Not that she wasn’t above a few threats and intimidation. Our original plan was to have a later start than yesterday, but a look at the weather forecast persuaded us otherwise: one does not fuck about when it says there is a 100% chance of afternoon thunderstorms at a park that is six hours away and for which your boyfriend has made a begrudging effort to work into the itinerary solely for your benefit. As a result, Saturday morning came way too early, and wresting myself from my blanket cocoon was no easy task as my brain and heavy eyelids duked it out:

BRAIN: You should get up. Merimbula. Coaster. Thunderstorms.

HEAVY EYELIDS: No. Too comfortable.

BRAIN: Get up.

HEAVY EYELIDS: You’ve already won this Valentine’s Day. You and Richard are spending it together. You won. Sleep. Sleep more.

BRAIN: You’re not going to convince him to make this drive a third time if the reason you get there too late is your fault.

HEAVY EYELIDS: Isn’t love enough?

I heaved the covers off my shoulder.

When we set off, the sun’s rays were just starting to clear the tops of the lowest buildings. In fact, I wore sunglasses for most of the drive (at least the bits I was awake for). The nagging fear of arriving too late dissipated as we drove past fields of radiant green and an azure ocean flecked with sparkles. The closer we got to Merimbula, however, the more overcast it became. By the time we arrived, the so-called Sapphire Coast was anything but: dull grays had supplanted the rich blues of sea and sky, and the tall trees lining the road made it even gloomier. Still, there wasn’t any rain yet. I had another brief interval of worry that the park might have chosen to remain closed in anticipation of stormy weather, but that faded when I saw the car park entrance was open. I breathed a sigh of relief. There were cars in the lot, there were people, things were looking good—

 

“Oh no,” I said. “Oh no no no no no.”

Two guys standing at the apex of the lift, poking at something and looking puzzled? That’s a closed coaster, alright. We watched one of them descend the stairs and climb back up with a camera. He began photographing something at the side of the track.

Oh no. Oh no no no no no this was NOT looking good.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“We go in and at least do the Toboggan Run,” answered Richard.

We went in. The Toboggan Run was closed.

 

(I guess the kangaroo out front should have told me.)

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to a special place:

 

For it is here, amongst these red, plastic pieces of product placement, that I came, I sat, I humpphed, and I moped.

 

Yea, behold the Chair of Mopiness!

 

See the spectacular show of sulking and scowling! Marvel at such magnificent moping! Gaze upon that glower, partake in this pageantry of pouting!

 

(Can you spot any difference in temperament between these two?  I can’t.)

Oh yes, how deeply I indulged in that mope session! And I know what you’re thinking, fellow credit whores, for I know you all understand my plight and are most certainly sitting there, staring at your screen, cooing with sympathy and muttering an encouraging phrase or two, perhaps along the lines of: Overreact much?

One closed coaster. That’s all it was. I mean sheesh, you’d have thought I’d never been to Six Flags Over Texas before or something. But to come all that way, only to be faced with the threat of having to do it all over again someday—and on the heels of last night’s failure—well, you know how they say it’s healthy to listen to your inner child now and again? That’s exactly what I did: I put myself in timeout. Actually, a juice box and a nap would have been more helpful (seriously, sleep deprivation does some fucked up shit to my emotions; dear lord you should see me during finals week) but the benefit of isolating myself in the Chair of Mopiness was that I had a direct view of the coaster. And so, while Richard went off to photograph*, I sulked and observed what was going on.

*leave me alone for his personal safety and sanity

And there was stuff going on. The two guys were still at it atop the lift. One went down the stairs and ducked beneath the station for a bit. Later I heard one of them calling out to the other something about a sensor. He asked the other guy to wave his hand in front of something so he could do a test. Whatever it was, they kept working on it.

And this is how my sulking time sprouted my admiration for this park. I want to make it clear that my ire was never directed at Merimbula itself. The only reason Toboggan Run was closed was because it had rained earlier and the slide had to dry before they could reopen it. And while the coaster may have been closed, I could see from the Chair of Mopiness the effort they were making to reopen it. Look at it this way: here was a park facing a dire weather forecast, yet still doing everything they could for those who did show up.

 

Like this.

And now, a cross cultural comparison (hey, I did say this blog would have its anthropological moments):

Reopening Attractions Following Rain: Corporate American Parks vs. Merimbula

Corporate American parks: Please continue to remain by this chain and trash can and turn guests away.

Merimbula: Here’s a rag. Here’s a stick. Let’s get this thing open.

The thing that delighted me about this was not so much the ingenuity of the rag on a stick drying procedure.

 

(Although it was pretty damn charming, to be sure).

No, the thing that delighted me most was the total lack of that corporate “we’ve already pocketed their POP so who cares how long it takes to reopen rides” mentality. I grew up with a Cedar Fair park, and I am all too familiar with the outright absurdity of their policy that everything—everything—shuts down in the rain, even in the lightest of showers, and doesn’t reopen until about four months later.

 

(Including walkthrough attractions. Last summer at Kings Island, we thought Dinosaurs Alive! might be a good way to pass the time it’d take to reopen attractions following a light afternoon shower…but wait, what’s that? Oh, it’s a guy standing beside a barrier and trash can turning people away!)

Hmmmm, perhaps it’s not fair to do a cross cultural comparison between an alpine slide and a walkthrough attraction.

 

No bother; here’s Merimbula’s walkthrough dinosaur attraction, only here it’s called Triassic Park, and it’s not an upcharge, and its gates are wide the fuck open because this is a locally owned park whose policies are rooted in common sense, not some farcical corporate philosophy that probably contains the word “synergy” in it somewhere.

And so when Richard showed me that shot following his photographing/avoiding me circuit, I couldn’t help but smile…well, that might be too strong a word, but my spirits lifted. A little.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

“Maybe. A little.”

“Alright then, come on,” he said, grabbing my hand. “You’re crabby enough without adding hunger on top of it!”

Well, he had me there.

 

Over we went to the front of the park where this lovely old Melbourne tram car served as the snack stand. It may not have been a juice box, but the order of fries I got from it began to restore some semblance of the properly functioning human I sometimes pretend but, let’s be honest, generally fail to be.

And as I came back to life, so too did Merimbula. The park-wide radio started up; the next moment, a voice announced over the PA system that Toboggan Run had reopened. At that, Richard dashed to the ticket stand, dashed back with a ticket and gave a simple command: “Go.”

“No, I’ll wait for y—”

“No, I’ve ridden it before. Go ride before it rains again. I’ll hold onto the fries.”

I so do not deserve him.

 

And now, our second cross cultural comparison:

Instructions on Piloting Alpine Slides/Coasters: America vs. Merimbula

America: Please sign this waiver, watch this safety video, listen to the same safety warnings repeated again and again in the queue, listen to them still again (and again and again and again) up the lift, and read the safety warning signs posted every ten feet along same.

Merimbula (and basically everywhere else): Don’t be a dumb ass.

 

As an American, I am used to being babysat. I am used to waiting for instruction, to being treated like a liability. Not that I don’t let out an exasperated sigh and lament that I hail from the place that made it necessary to put “caution: hot” labels on coffee cups. But when that’s what you’re used to, I was surprised to find no one at the head of the line to direct me to a sled. I stood there awkwardly, wondering if I was allowed to step forward and take the next empty sled (which seemed like the commonsensical thing to do but hey, I’ve been scolded at American parks for doing other seemingly commonsensical things like buckling my own restraint). Finally an attendant on the far side of the track waved me forward and told me to hop in the next sled. Like, by myself. Without any assistance or hand holding. Madness!

 

But it got weirder.

“Have you ever ridden this before?” the ride attendant asked.

“I’ve been on rides similar to this, but not this particular one,” I replied.

“Okay, so you know what you’re doing, you know how to move it and brake it?”

“Yup.”

“Okay then!” And he stamped my hand.

Wait, that was it? I thought back to the time I’d given that answer for an alpine coaster—and even explained exactly how to operate the sled to back up my claim—and was still made to watch the five minute safety video, which left me a) determined to lie next time and b) amazed how it was even possible to convey “push means go; pull means stop” with so much verbosity. What was this? First he trusts me to approach an active ride track on my own, then he trusts that I’m telling the truth when I say I’ve ridden one of these before (which, for the record, was true), and now I’m wearing a stamp on my hand as a pledge of responsibility for my actions?

But it got weirder still.

“So since you’ve done these before, do you want a fast ride?”

I am reminded, as I type this, of the recent alpine coaster installations in Pigeon Forge that have automatic braking into every turn (which, ironically, doesn’t seem to enhance safety in any way); how it feels like there’s an invisible, chastising arm forever checking you and holding you back—an arm attached to an entity that does not fully trust you (which is reasonable judgement in a nation that’s brought Trump this far). But a ride attendant timing sled departures so we could go balls out and court disaster if we so desired? I smiled for the first time all afternoon. “Of course!” I answered.

Buying that time, however, came at the cost of acknowledging another disaster: my Philadelphia accent.

 

As I was quickly learning that Australians are the human equivalent of golden retrievers when it comes to friendliness, it didn’t surprise me when he started conversation and asked where I was from, remarking that he’d place my accent either from the U.S. or Canada (Canada, I am so, so sorry). We got to chatting about the usual stuff—how had my holiday been, how long was I there, where had I visited so far, etc.

“So what did you think of Sydney?” he asked.

“Well, we weren’t there long but I liked what I saw.”

He laughed. “I lived there for fifty years. That’s why I’m here!” (Okay, so maybe the unconditional kindness of a golden retriever wasn’t the best analogy for Australians after all.)

 

Better stick with the tried and true Australian cast of characters. Luckily, the next part of this tale is getting swallowed by this shark. If that’s not an Australian way to begin an alpine slide, I don’t know what is.

And speaking of sharks, you know how when there are signs on the beach that say to stay out of the water, you stay the hell out of the water? And you know how alpine slides have signs that tell you when to brake, but we tend to ignore them because we’re not called enthusiasses for nothing? Please let this shark be a reminder that you should maybe consider paying attention to those signs now and then.

The difference between an alpine coaster and an alpine slide is whether or not you’re locked to the track. Merimbula’s installation is the latter. As a result, there are no upstop wheels to hold you down if you go max power around a bend.

 

That means you are your own lifeguard. It is up to you to not make a dumb ass (or possibly a dead ass) of yourself when you take those turns. In this layout, there were so many tight, banked turns I lost count, but in every one of them I felt vulnerable, knowing that if I hit them too recklessly I might replace the Chair of Mopiness with the Hospital Bed of Mopiness—and it would all be my fault. That element of danger lends a special sort of thrill to alpine slides.

It also lends a little more power to that voice in your head whose job is to prevent you from winning a Darwin award. And so I braked. A little :)

I subsequently learned that Richard took the turns a bit more, shall we say, energetically. He didn’t wipe out.

 

But I’d wager he was relieved when the cable lift took over control at the end of the course.

 

I was too, but it wasn’t so much the relief of having made it to the end in one piece as it was the relief that at least our long drive had been worth something.

 

My primary targets for Merimbula were the coaster and Toboggan Run. Now that I had checked one of them off, now that the drive had not been in vain, I felt better. Not better enough that I didn’t feel like a garbage human being to find that Richard (despite the threat of more rain) had waited patiently to ride until after he’d handed back the fries. But better enough that I was ready to put on my big girl panties and properly explore Merimbula. (It probably also helped that racing through a green and gray blur of hillside and sky worked wonders for waking me up, particularly when I had nothing but own brain to decide if my health insurance policy wanted to enter a committed relationship with the sharp stones and splintery sticks on the ground.)

 

And so, even though we are well into this trip report, let’s make a proper entrance.

 

Merimbula’s Magic Mountain opened in November 1983. It is locally owned and operated…

 

…has free admission…

 

…protects the intelligent lot who wish not to inhale fetid, carcinogenic clouds…

 

…and provides free birth control by reminding you of every film you’ve seen about demonic children.

 

(I’m serious)

 

But if you can overlook the fact that many of their signs look like they were inspired by Snapchat filters…

 

…(at least they went with something besides the dog filter)…

 

…it is a lovely park.

 

According to their website, their first attraction was this pair of waterslides. Subsequent expansion brought in a diverse collection of rides that leads me to define Merimbula as a deluxe FEC. It’s not an amusement park as I’d think of the term in the traditional sense, meaning that it’s not a ride-heavy park. The usual cast of characters—carousel, Ferris wheel, Scrambler, funhouse, kiddie umbrella circle rides, etc.—is absent. While it does have the alpine slide and a coaster that is certainly a step up from the usual (and often pathetic, at least for adults) FEC fare, many of its offerings resonate with those found at your basic FEC.

 

For example, this giant inflatable.

 

And mini golf.

 

And go karts.

 

But when I say Merimbula feels like a deluxe FEC, it’s not just because the attractions are outdoors in the fresh air as opposed to inside some crowded, neon-carpeted arcade pulsating with the steady cannonade of video racing games and the singsong bleeping of redemption games (in other words, the kind of environment that slowly drains my will to live). It’s because they’ve gone above and beyond the norm for the FEC genre, both in how they’ve capitalized on their outdoor location to offer a wider and more interesting variety of attractions and in the effort they’ve devoted to presentation.

 

For instance, they could have just plopped these stumps along this pathway and left it at that. Nothing wrong with a few stumps au naturel. Believe me, I am all about the au naturel look. Life’s too short to spend failing to imitate, however hilariously, YouTube contouring tutorials. But no, Merimbula decided that even stumps deserve the Sephora treatment now and again.

 

Hell, even their welcome clown’s smoky eye is better than I could ever do.

 

And they could have consigned this old woman to live in a frayed and moth-eaten advertisement for Odor-Eaters, but instead they gave her a boot fit for a Thanksgiving centerpiece (look, let’s just say we don’t go for sophisticated in my family).

 

As for maximizing the potential of their outdoor setting, Merimbula offers an amphitheater via the Rocka House stage.

 

The outdoor go kart track is educational because it simulates a real road, complete with real life Australian road perils such as policemen and emus.

 

And then there’s their latest addition, Tree Climb Challenge, which takes your standard ropes course and stretches it across most of the park, using the trees to anchor its various components, which include…

 

…obstacle courses (high wires, rope bridges, etc.)…

 

…and zip lines.

Ropes courses are by no means a novelty at FECs, but they are usually compact, occupying only a small footprint. Merimbula, on the other hand, gives you an hour and a half to complete Tree Climb Challenge, which ought to tell you something. There are three courses in total. You have the option of trying all three or you can repeat a particular course as many times as you want if you happen to really like it/don’t want to get too creative in making a monkey out of yourself.

 

In the gift shop you’ll find plenty of Tree Climb Challenge souvenirs, such as this t-shirt and painful awareness of muscles you never knew you had. The latter even comes with a free existential crisis in which to ponder your unstoppable march toward bodily decrepitude and death.

All in all, Merimbula has a little bit of everything.

 

Well, except a working coaster.

Following a round of photos, Richard and I walked back to thy Hallowed Chair of Mopiness to see what was going on with Diamond Python. Richard had asked about it when he bought Toboggan Run tickets and learned the coaster was down due to a minor electrical issue. The ticket seller, however, was confident it would reopen: she had just received word over her radio that it was fixed and now it was just a matter of finding a ride operator.

 

I was less confident. The station was vacant, and I thought I heard thunder in the distance. The ticket seller had also reassured Richard the coaster operated in the rain—well, “most times, at least!” she had chirped. Somehow I didn’t think a raging thunderstorm constituted a “most times” situation.

So you could say we were a little tense. We had already been there two hours. There was still a four hour drive ahead of us (which we’d agreed I would do, except four hours was a Google estimate, which surely did not take into account the “Megan is driving for the first time ever on the left side of the road run away run away now” factor). A dinner stop would be necessary. We’d spent the last couple days operating on a sleep deficit. At what point does rationality kick in and make you abort?

Well, we’re coaster enthusiasts, so obviously that’s a rhetorical question.

As it happened, one of the guys from earlier materialized and began poking around an electrical box. Then he pulled out a fuchsia notebook and proceeded to write a dissertation about the issue, or at least that’s what I assumed given how long he was at it. All I know is that with every passing minute, I saw my chances of riding this coaster drift ever further away, as though carried on the pre-storm breezes ominously rustling through the trees. At last he jumped off the station platform. The only part of him we could see from where we were standing was his arm, which was tugging at something. Then a buzzing noise started up. Was that the compressor? My heart leapt. Few things are sweeter to an enthusiast’s ear than a closed coaster’s compressor finally coming to life (well, except for maybe the call that the buffet line is open). Come on, I was thinking. Start ‘er up, start ‘er up, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, get back out here!

And he did get back out there.

 

With a leaf blower.

 

He was—he was—

 

Oh my god.

He was blowing leaves. He was blowing the goddamn leaves. There was the coaster, fixed, ready, waiting. There I was, having heart palpitations over the threat of losing to Mother Nature for a second year in a row. I felt like I was in that scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Clark’s entire family is entreating him to open the Christmas bonus envelope. Just open the freaking thing! I wanted to yell.

But nope. Got to tidy the yard first.

And it was at that moment I realized: Merimbula, I love you. Okay, so the leaf blowing was probably necessary to clear the lift motor of any debris. But the guy didn’t stop there. No, he was determined to clear the entire area. Which he did, slowly.

Like, really slowly.

In fact, he went about it not at all unlike a former neighbor of mine, who would invariably choose a windy day for breaking out the leaf blower, which brought my mom and I to our knees laughing uproariously when the leaves came blowing right back at him, and then laughing harder still as he continued, unhurried and steadfast in his futile task.

At Merimbula, I was laughing again. It was all I could do, caught in this entanglement of impatience and adoration for a park that insisted on cleaning up their attractions down to the landscaping before opening them. We’d made it past the stand at the top of the lift looking confused bit, past the tinkering and diagnosing the problem bit, past the fixing of the problem bit. A ride op had been sent for. That credit was now so damn close, yet here we were, thwarted by some leaves.

So, was this whole experience going to end with a one year subscription to the Jelly of the Month Club? Who would emerge victorious in this year’s Megan v. Mother Nature Valentine’s Day showdown?

 

ME, BITCHES.

As Richard muttered in exasperation about Leaf Man’s devotion to preparing the scene for a Better Homes and Gardens shoot, the star of the show finally arrived: a ride operator. We watched as he walked up the queue ramp and entered the station. Tentatively, we followed. The barrier blocking the entrance was gone now, but he was fiddling with something and his back was to us as we approached the station. Was there still a final kink or two to sort? I quietly ventured up the ramp (I mean, I could have just called out to ask the guy directly but then, like, he might have sensed I was one of those desperate coaster enthusiasts) (haha just kidding, the truth is that I sound like a rheumatic seagull when I yell). He turned around. Smiled. Moment of truth.

 

“Come on in!”

What I was thinking: ::Cheering level: Stephen Colbert studio audience on the Obama episode::

What I said: “Thank you!”

What he said: “I noticed you were waiting awhile; thanks for being patient.”

What he was thinking*: Get a load of these lamewad desperate coaster enthusiasts!

*probably

What Richard said: “‘Patient’ might be too a strong word.”

I shot Richard a Look. Patient or not, at least they eventually got it open.

 

And boy, was it worth the wait, because Diamond Python was the goddamn best Pinfari I’d ever been on. You might think that’s not saying terribly much—kind of like saying periodontal surgery is your favorite kind of invasive dental procedure—but hear me out.

So we got into the car, which, after such a long wait, was already more satisfying in and of itself than most Pinfaris (not to mention that a motionless Pinfari car tends to be infinitely more enjoyable than a moving one, but anyway). The ride op gave the usual spiel—hang onto the grab bar, the brakes come on strong at the end, do you enthusiast types know how ridiculous you are, etc.—and off we went.

 

(Leaf Man had by this time moved to the coaster’s perimeter, in case you were wondering.)

 

Up the lift we went…

 

…past the troublemaker that started it all…

 

…around the bend, down the first drop, around the next bend. So far, so good. So far, so…well, not very remarkable. In other words, so far, so normal.

 

We crested the second drop, went down, came back up…

 

…and then POP!

How surprised were we that a Pinfari Zyklon had ejector airtime? Well, Richard and I squealed, which means absolutely nothing on my end (I mean, I get that excited when Cracker Barrel rolls out their campfire chicken every summer; it really doesn’t take much), but if you’ve met Richard, that should give you an idea of how startled—and delighted—we were at finding our asses clearing the seat by…I’m not sure how many inches, but surely the angle of my knees was greater than ninety degrees (you should really try that chicken if you haven’t, by the way). It’s not that airtime on these is unheard of. Usually, though, Zyklons/Galaxis are tame and predictable; if your bum does depart the seat, it’s not going to travel very far. To have a spot of airtime so aggressive we were on our way to standing was therefore on the level of, say, getting something that actually resembles food from a United economy meal. There was even one more surprise pop near the end of the ride. It wasn’t as strong as the first one, so I suppose I could describe that one as getting something edible for the snack portion of United’s economy catering service, but if I keep relating my honest experience with such outright impossible scenarios, you won’t believe me.

Suffice it to say Diamond Python exceeded my expectations and then some. It ticked all the boxes of your typical Zyklon: it was smooth, pleasant and overall good fun. Normally, these traits are like the consolation prize for a ride that lacks any real thrills (kind of like the flowers Richard had sent me last year to make up for our cheerless Valentine’s Day). Today, they joined forces with…well, actual forces.

And if that’s not enough reason to walk down the exit ramp with my arms held triumphantly in the air like Muhammad Ali, I don’t know what is. Well, except for maybe another ride. Which we did, of course. The ride op invited us and surely it would have been rude to say no. I figured there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it back to this place anyway and Richard swears he means it this time when he says he’s not making this pilgrimage again (psssst, Merimbula! That’s your cue to add a B&M!). Besides, I was in such a beneficent mood, kindly returning the favor of that certain special one finger salute Mother Nature had gifted me last year. But first, we had to buy another pair of tickets, so off I went.

Ticket Sales: Corporate Parks vs. Merimbula

Corporate Parks: The forecast is taking a turn for the worse and lots of rides will probably close soon, so quickquickquick, hand over your money! BTW, no rainchecks or refunds.

Merimbula: The forecast doesn’t look good and rides are starting to close, so we recommend you come another time rather than risk wasting your money.

When I got to the ticket booth, the woman behind the desk was going against every corporate philosophy I’d ever witnessed by talking a couple who’d just arrived out of buying unlimited wristbands. She warned the forecast was almost certainly going to interrupt ride operations (some errant raindrops had already closed down Toboggan Run again) and that the rides would be closing for the day soon, anyway. She suggested they return the next day, when the forecast looked much better. Now I ask you: what kind of business dissuades customers from giving them money? What kind of place cares that much about their customers getting value for their dollar that they actively seek to prevent those dollars from going to waste? When I think back to some of my recent park experiences, it is heartening to find smaller parks like Merimbula who realize that profit does not always correlate with customer satisfaction. I am not kidding when I say that, given the choice, I’d choose to spend an afternoon at a place like Merimbula with its lone, run of the mill Pinfari Zyklon instead of dealing with the extortion and hostility of a place like Six Flags New England just for the sake of a few rides on Wicked Cyclone.

Don’t believe me? How about if I tell you that the single ride op manning Diamond Python managed the entire operation—loading, monitoring when the car on the track had reached the block in order to dispatch the next one, pushing that car out of the station, running to meet you at the unloading point, and then doing it all again and again for all three cars running—not only efficiently, but with a smile and friendly chat to boot?

Last time at SFNE, the four to five person Wicked Cyclone team took about five minutes to dispatch a train (perhaps this was because they were down a pair of hands thanks to the crew member they kept posted at the entrance to yell at guests who tried to pick their own row?).

In short:

How Merimbula makes me feel

 

How corporate, profiteering parks make me feel

(In case you’re wondering, this is an exhibit of a mammoth trapped in a tar pit, taken from Merimbula’s Triassic Park attraction (remember? The one that isn’t an upcharge and doesn’t close for asinine reasons?) I learned from this exhibit that those poor mammoths were sometimes eaten alive by sabre toothed tigers as they sank. If that’s not an accurate metaphor of the money and sanity gouging despondency of some of those larger parks, I don’t know what is.) (And no, I don’t know why a creature that didn’t appear until millions of years after the Triassic period is part of this attraction, but I figure if I can use it to show the difference between this Magic Mountain and a certain Tragic Mountain in California, then its inclusion is more than justified.)

And, speaking of…

 

…whose entry gate font is totally dissimilar from other audiovisual presentations pertaining to dinosaurs, such as those from the Jurassic period, we took a gander in there before heading out.

You’re probably wondering to yourself about now, besides the usual question of how I can ramble on for so long in these trip reports (believe me, that question’s mutual), if I have anything negative to say about Merimbula. Well, I do.

 

Triassic Park failed to offer an acceptable Dinosaurs to Shirtless Jeff Goldblum ratio.

 

What fun could this possibly be without the quips and glistening chest of Dr. Ian Malcolm?

I’m sure you’ll understand what a huge disappointment that was.

In the end, though, I couldn’t complain. Not just because I almost forever destroyed my ability to complain when I nearly got us killed within five minutes of driving on the left side of the road for the first time (now in my defense, it was in a multilane roundabout, and being American automatically predisposes me to halt all logical decision making when it comes to those things). And not just because I’m obviously being sarcastic (which I feel the need to clarify in today’s environment of my generation bending so far over to show off how butthurt they are by everything on the Internet that sarcasm sails right over their heads).

 

It’s because the day could hardly have gone any better. I mean, yeah, okay, I could have done without the Chair of Mopiness part, but I will own up to that as my own doing. But, unlike some self-entitled enthusiasses out there who rant, object, bitch, bellyache and leave vehement, embittered yowlings on social media platforms when they don’t get their way, my quiet sulking opened my receptors to notice a truly lovely park. Future travelers, Merimbula’s Magic Mountain is well worth a visit. You simply can’t go wrong with its pleasant atmosphere, delightful staff, surprisingly excellent coaster, and such thorough lawn and leaf care demonstrations.

I was also flying high because our risky endeavor paid off. We gave ourselves one shot to get a credit in a park so far removed from everything on a continent so far removed from everything, and we managed it despite such a discouraging start.

But most satisfying of all was that Richard and I finally, finally got to spend a Valentine’s Day together. I know I said I couldn’t be arsed about Valentine’s Day, and I stand by that. Frankly, I don’t think I would have even noticed the date if it hadn’t been for the previous year’s fiasco. But that disastrous weekend, during which I eventually boycotted Facebook because I was too disgusted by all the photos of lovey dovey couples, stuck with me. It was one thing to be down a boyfriend, but to lose the most critical component of my procrastination routine, too? Unforgivable.

Spending the day together at a terrific park wasn’t the only thing that made our Valentine’s Day special, though. The fact that Richard went so far out of his way just for me—the fact that he went all the way to Australia, only to repeat a ridiculously time consuming drive that he’d sworn never do again but did anyway, solely for my benefit—well, that’s true love in the coaster enthusiast world. 

 

How could I not feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have landed someone who got me this rare diamond for Valentine’s Day? 

Which reminds me, I’d better go and humblebrag about that on Instagram.

Wonderland Fun Park

Let’s whore.

If there is one thing Australia is lacking in the coaster department, it’s those silly, little, out of the way places harboring a lone kiddie coaster that only the hardiest of credit whores seek out. And really, thank fuck for that. There is no surer way to question your life choices than by driving six hours to a children’s amusement park for the privilege of having a Wisdom Orient Express bruise your skin (and your ego, and your sanity, and other people’s formerly esteemed opinions of you). Now, I admit some of my favorite memories come from such credit whoring expeditions (let’s look at yesterday, for example), but let’s be honest: sometimes you can’t deny the foolishness of this hobby when you decide to leave a nice park earlier than you’d like in order to make it to a Big Apple five hours away.

The closest Australia comes to that sort of thing is Wonderland Fun Park, and even then, it’s not that ridiculous a credit. Big Apple it may be, but at just four miles away from Luna Park Melbourne, it was hardly a diversion. Or at least it wasn’t a diversion that required much justification.

That is, until we encountered the Costco crowd.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Costco. Any place whose smallest bag of pancake mix could feed the entire population of Djibouti is a winner in my book. But a weekend afternoon at Costco, where all of suburbia congregates in one concrete warehouse, with frugal wives, despondent husbands and unruly children still wearing their soccer gear all vying for space between shopping carts the size of catamarans? The only layer in hell deeper than that is a Saturday afternoon at Walmart.

Consequently, our visit to Wonderland Fun Park commenced with a situation that was anything but a wonderland and anything but fun: sitting in a line of cars, each awaiting their right of way to turn into the Costco parking garage on the opposite side of the road. Costco is just one of dozens of stores in a retail Gehenna that also includes the sprawling Harbour Town shopping mall. It was a weekend. It was a beautiful day (which, for some reason, is always remarkably effective in enticing people inside a sepulchral Abercrombie & Fitch to inhale throat-singeing cologne and spend $80 on a t-shirt). It was a skinny two lane road.

We waited awhile.

But finally, there was an opening and we inched forward as car after car after car turned into the Costco garage like a dutiful line of ants. As for our parking, we used a public garage for Harbour Town, where it was $3.00 to dump the car for an hour. Setting our watches to credit whore mode (well, not really, unless you count the fact that Richard had programmed the park into his bulky, unwieldy, and charmingly nerdy GPS watch, whose utility was once again lovingly extolled upon for my benefit, just in case I wasn’t listening the first 8,967 times), the countdown was on to nab this worm and hustle on over to Luna.

But we didn’t need the watch.

 

Kinda hard to miss a park that’s set up in the shadow of this thing.

(Oh, what’s that? Did you say something about us losing the Harbour Bridge the other night? Pffft, don’t know what you’re talking about.)

 

Wonderland Fun Park—as well as the surrounding stores, restaurants, and the Melbourne Star observation wheel—is part of an area in Melbourne called the Docklands. Because it’s easy to mistake my writing output for that of a sloth, I must report that the park has actually moved since our visit. From what I can gather, however, it hasn’t moved far. It’s still adjacent to the wheel; I think the only difference is that it’s on a larger plot of land, which I presume is for when they add the Intamin giga coaster.

 

It seems they’ve spruced up the area and added more entertainment options, like this fairy show. The website also mentions “assorted gourmet hot dogs,” so really by all accounts this place should be more well known in enthusiast circles.

At the very least, the various attractions are a convenient bargaining chip/bribe to get your kids to go shopping with you (and to convince me to leave the serenity of the car in the presence of Sunday afternoon Costco shoppers).

 

Our first glimpse of the park took in the white Pleasantville-y picket fence demarcating its perimeter. Indeed, “pleasant” is an appropriate adjective for the place. Inside, more white picket fences made tidy borders around each ride. Instead of blacktop or concrete underfoot, there was artificial grass/turf (or, failing that, green carpeting, which didn’t look as nice but hey, E for effort). Planters provided a bit of landscaping. There was plenty of seating, whether in the form of green plastic lawn chairs or umbrella-shaded table and chair sets. The employees were friendly (which is to say that the Wacky Worm ride op did not look at us like we had three heads).

 

There was even theming.

As for the ride selection, it was modest but varied:

 

There was the Flying Dragon

 

…kiddie swings…

 

…and a surprisingly large carousel, given the size of the place.

Also on offer were dodgems, a pirate ship and trampolines, among others—all told, a fine little collection that would have kept my five to eight year old self happy for hours.

Honestly, the only real criticism I have of the place is that it could have used more shade.

 

But they kind of made up for it with mister fans and free sunscreen.

So pleasant indeed it was, but if ever a park lived up to its name, then Wonderland was it, for it was there that two wondrous—nay, miraculous—things happened:

 

First, the coaster was actually open.

 

But that was nothing compared to what happened when Richard and I walked past the Crazy Wave, for its soundtrack at that moment generated a phenomenon so extraordinary, so unbelievably astonishing, that I thought for a second we were in an alternate universe: In unison, we said, “You really can’t fault the music selection.” In unison. We said this in unison.

Richard and I are alike in many ways, but our music tastes are about as polarized as you can get. I am an alternative/pop/rock/twenty-one-pilots-gets-played-at-max-volume-whether-you-like-it-or-not kind of girl. Richard is a classical/musicals/church choir/I’m-wary-of-music-that’s-under-two-hundred-years-old* guy. Now, I have no problem admitting Beethoven wrote some fine tunes in his day, but the number of petty arguments we’ve had while trying to agree upon music for livening up the monotony of long drives is…well, let’s just say I’m glad we didn’t start off this relationship with the “what kind of music do you listen to” icebreaker question.

 

*except ABBA. He fucking loves ABBA.

But now, at this little Melbourne Wonderland, we’d reached an accord that I’d place on par with, oh, probably the Treaty of Versailles.

And that song that sparked the magic?

“Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba.

Which makes zero sense given the above description of his tastes, but he has his eccentricities, like sprinkling chicken soup powder over his pasta, willingly rising before 11:00 a.m. on weekends, and dating me.

The harmony didn’t last long. By the time we’d bought our coaster tickets, the Crazy Wave soundtrack had switched to “Magic” by B.o.B. and Rivers Cuomo. I was rocking out on my own to that one.

 

And speaking of tickets, today’s order from the Whoretastic Fun Catalogue cost us $7.50 apiece.

 

For $7.50, we got three laps on Wacky Worm Family Coaster and a reminder that I need to stock up on granola bars and 500 count multivitamins the next time I’m in the States.

 

Now we come to the part where I show you photo angles you’ve seen thousands of times while I try to recall something, anything that’s unique about a ride model with over 500 entries on rcdb.

 

The coaster came from the U.S. in 2010, where it probably operated on the fair circuit.

 

Umm…instead of the usual flower decorations, there were flags. Faded and tattered flags.

 

The supports that led to nothing at the top of the lift suggested there’s an abandoned apple tunnel out there somewhere.

 

The drop section wasn’t painted for some reason…and…I’m grasping at straws here, just like the seatbelt buckle was grasping and pinching my ass cheeks (adults, we were told, weren’t required to wear the seatbelt).

Okay, so I think even the dirtiest among us can agree that’s more than sufficient coverage for a Big Apple? Yes?

 

With Crazy Wave onto another Megan loving/Richard hating jam (“Disturbia” by Rihanna) and Rexy gesturing his pointless little arm noodles in the direction of the parking garage, we made our exit.

So. Total elapsed time between obtaining and paying the parking ticket? 24 minutes. Doesn’t get much more efficient than that. Seriously, this is such an easy stop to make if you’re in Melbourne. All credit whores, from the shamelessly deranged to the ones still in the closet, can manage this one. I encourage you to make the effort.

(P.S. Don’t forget your Costco membership card. You’ll want a pallet or two of ibuprofen before hitting that scenic railway down the street.) 

Luna Park Melbourne

You know how on Sesame Street, they indoctrinate children into the concept of corporate sponsorship and the empty and meaningless existence of consumer society by saying each episode is brought to you by a letter and a number?

Well, guess what.

Today’s trip report is brought to you by the letters S and C and the number 7.

I’m doing it this way for two reasons. One, because I had a difficult time writing Luna Sydney and I wanted a change of pace. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Two, because I nicknamed the Scenic Railway the Scenic Spine Cruncher and then everything began falling into place around those two letters.  I thought hey, why not? Just because I’m about to go mad from having the Sesame Street theme song stuck in my head for weeks doesn’t mean it was a bad idea. At least that’s what the voices are telling me.

So let’s jump right into this by picking up where we left off and forging the link with Melbourne’s Sydney sister. First up:

The Soul Curdler

You may recall my saying that if the Luna Sydney Face didn’t disturb you, then to just wait until we got to Luna Park Melbourne.

 

Meet Mr. Moon.

Have you ever seen those photos that make the internet rounds every Halloween of the costumes people wore around the turn of the twentieth century? You know how you look at them and wonder how people ever thought that was something to photograph for posterity instead of, say, some motivation to break the record for the 200 meter dash?

 

Take this one, for example. Look at the person on the far left. Look at the tiny, unevenly sized eye slits, the way the fabric is pulled taut over the nose tip, and the gaping indent over the mouth, like the slackened jaw of a skull. Look at the person in the foreground, whose crooked stance renders its mouth into a distorted, mutant sneer. Now look at the guy in the middle, the scarecrow thing with the hollow black eyes and the cavernous black void of a mouth.

Now look at Mr. Moon again.

 

Or, better yet, look at his previous incarnations (particularly the one on the top right).

At least with Luna Sydney’s Face, it still looks human, albeit of the ventriloquist dummy, definitely-going-to-murder-you-in-your-sleep type. The thing that gets me about Mr. Moon is his ashen skin. I mean sure, it’s LUNA Park and a mascot named Mr. Moon is obviously not going to greet you with rosy cherubic cheeks. But that waxy skin gouged with abyssal wrinkles, and those Cathy Ames teeth, and those pencilled-in eyebrows that match the freak show of greasy paint and ham-handed contouring that is eyebrow fashion these days—that’s venturing into clown territory.

In other words: hell no.

There’s another thing that goes around on Facebook every Halloween. It’s a like-and-share image that says something along the lines of Halloween falling on a Friday the 13th for the first time in 666 years (I like to call this image “Insecticide for Facebook Friends”). Friday the 13th is, however, pertinent to Luna Park Melbourne: it was the day Mr. Moon’s ghastly maw opened to its first guests. Not in October, though—it was December, and the year was 1912.

 

Melbourne’s was the first of five Australian Luna Parks (today only this one and Sydney’s survive. The others were located in Glenelg, South Australia; Redcliffe, Queensland; and Scarborough, Western Australia). Overlooking Port Phillip Bay in the St. Kilda suburb of Melbourne, it was the brainchild of a Canadian entrepreneur named James Dixon Williams, who wanted to capitalize on the formula that had made Coney Island’s amusement parks so successful. Although he’d only been in Australia since 1909, he had already made a name for himself by the time he proposed the amusement park in May 1911. His background was in theater/film and he’d established a number of posh cinemas throughout the continent. He had also been involved in the always exciting enterprise of selling novelty walking sticks.

Luna Park is neither the original name nor even the original park on the site. In 1906, the Dreamland amusement park opened on the same plot but failed after just one summer (leading one cheeky reporter to nickname it “Deadland”). When Williams leased the land, he envisioned a Steeplechase Park like Coney Island’s whose hallmark attraction would be a horse themed coaster encircling the park (similar to this one). The plan for the coaster was scrapped over potential safety concerns, but the scenic railway on the roster remained.

Williams worked alongside three brothers from Los Angeles by the name of Phillips: Herman, Leon, and Harold. They brought in T.H. Eslick as their chief engineer, whose résumé boasted over a decade of experience at amusement parks on four continents.

 


I believe it’s Eslick who is credited with the architecture and detailing on the entrance and exit façades, which, Mr. Moon aside, is magnificent. It’s in the Moghul style (think Taj Mahal type buildings) and when it’s lit up at night it’s positively stunning (apart from those soul piercing orbs of eyes Mr. Moon’s got going, that is. Did you know that when this place opened, his eyes rolled from side to side? No? Well, it turns out the purpose of this, according to a souvenir brochure, was to “express Mr. Moon’s joy in being at last able to get down amongst those humans in whose love affairs he is supposed to have taken a fatherly interest since the first song writer wrote the first love song—and ran short of a snappy rhyme for ‘coon’”. Yessir, nothing more romantic than having a fatherly figure third wheeling your date and boring down on you with those eyes. At least our old Sydney pal Reverend Calder would have had one less thing to complain about.)

 

It seems the Friday the 13th grand opening was anything but unlucky: the park has remained in almost continuous operation since then. That’s an amazing feat, considering that:

 

a) The first night’s entertainment concluded with two guys in an elephant costume walking on a high wire…

 

…and b), there was a show in the first year called “The Curious Flea Circus” (and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like).

That’s also amazing when you think about how many parks out there foundered during the Depression and both world wars. Luna Melbourne survived WWI by hosting fundraisers, scaling back operations (for example, only the Scenic Railway and the funhouse remained open during the 1915-1916 season), and providing wholesome family entertainment like the “Kaiser’s Kitchen” show, which encouraged patrons to lob crockery at a figure of the kaiser (note to self: don’t clear out that shelf of old pans and dishes until we see how the next four years go). Not even the blackout restrictions during the wars closed the gates mouth, which is all the more impressive when you consider how integral illumination has been to the park’s ambiance—it used to be called “the place of 50,000 lights.”

 

(Not that there weren’t a few rough spots along the way. In fact, the park was closed for a few years following WWI, which leaves me puzzled over the Scenic Railway’s oft cited “longest continually operating coaster in the world” accolade.)

The Phillips brothers remained with the park until their deaths. As for Williams, he went to the U.S. in 1913 and established a film company that would later merge with Warner Bros.

 

Not a bad legacy, all things considered.

 

Like its Sydney counterpart, Luna Melbourne is tiny. I was surprised how small it was. Here’s the view looking one way…

 

…and then you make a 180 degree turn, and there’s the rest of it. Really. That’s it.

Which means you might be surprised to learn there used to be a second full size wooden coaster nestled in there. It was called the Big Dipper and ran from 1923-1989. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, given what you’re about to read), it was demolished when a critically needed refurbishment was deemed too costly.

A few other iconic but dearly departed attractions from the early years include the Palais des Folies (the Coney Island Funnyland of Melbourne that was called the Giggle Palace in later years before a fire destroyed it), River Caves of the World (a dark ride that was preemptively demolished after the deadly fire on Luna Sydney’s version), Noah’s Ark (walkthrough funhouse; Kennywood’s is the only one of its kind left), and Jack ‘n’ Jill (water chute).

 

Between 1990 and 2012, there was also this Galaxi called Metropolis.

As of our visit, the park map listed 17 attractions occupying this tiny triangle of a park (though they’ve since added some horrid looking Wisdom spinning thing).

 

Some are old.

 

Some are new.

 

Some are in between.

 

Some I’m only showing you because I have a photo of it and don’t know where else to put it.

 

But all of them require mustering the courage and steeling your soul to face Mr. Moon’s jolly countenance first.

 

Admission is free at Luna Park Melbourne. The cost for one ride is a whopping AUD$10.95, so I’d recommend going with the unlimited ride wristband (as of this writing, that costs AUD$49.95; $39.95 for ages 4-12; $17.50 for ages 0-3 (the latter of which might sound a little nickel and dimey because most parks don’t charge for kids that young, but remember, it’s not a POP place)).

I have in my notes that, before we paid, the admissions attendant did two things: 1) she mentioned which rides were out of commission that day, just in case we hadn’t seen the sign listing same in the window (amazing how simple that is, eh Dollywood?) and 2) she pointed to the list of prohibitive medical issues you usually see posted at ride entrances—heart conditions, pregnancy, back/neck trouble, etc.—and asked if we had any of them. On further reflection, however, I believe I am in error on the second point.

I think she must have been warning us that we might leave the park with some of those conditions.

 

The Scenic Spine Cruncher

Are you dissatisfied with the present alignment of your vertebrae?

Have you found yourself wishing you could juggle a few discs around or bang your spinal column incessantly against a hard object to give that cerebrospinal fluid a rejuvenating ‘ole shake ‘n stir?

Are you just so tired of living a life devoid of plexopathic adventure?

 

Then say hello to the Luna Park Melbourne Scenic Railway!

 

Since 1912, the Luna Park Scenic Railway has been wending and twisting spines straight into the chairs and coffers of chiropractors the world over! An L.A. Thompson original (yes, the LaMarcus Adna Thompson—as in, the dude who designed the first ever Switchback Railway in 1884, which spawned the modern gravity coaster that we know and love to get in fights about with strangers over the internet today. I once wrote an essay in middle school naming him as the person I’d most like to meet from the past (because seriously, who wants to bother with George Washington or Abraham Lincoln when you could sit on an uncomfortable bench and go coasting down some ramps at a cool 6 mph?))…right, where was I?

 

An L.A. Thompson original, the Scenic Railway is one of the few coasters in the world that operates with a brakeman. Owing to the train’s lack of upstop wheels, it is the brakeman’s job to keep the train on the track. It’s a very important job because the only thing more painful than riding on the track would be [might be, tbh this would be a close contest] careening off it!

 

We’ve all been inconvenienced by efficient operations and courteous clientele, but not anymore!

 

Thanks to a revolutionary breakthrough using cutting-edge Have A Six Flags Day Science™, your Scenic Railway experience begins with a well earned rest on these padded seats after enjoying multiple line jumpings and numerous definitely-not-aggravating-at-all ten minute dispatch intervals.

Then, simply pull down the restraint, pop a few preemptive aspirin, and let the cable lift take you up, up and away to your scenic sacrum squashing!

 

It’s so easy! Crest the top of the first drop and, in a hundred simple, quick and relentlessly vicious motions, let those vertebrae jiggle and bounce and jump like a bobblehead on a 4×4 dashboard! Let your ligaments ricochet to the beat of a thousand screeching nerve endings! Mash your myotomes into spasming misery! No longer will social gatherings be ruined by boredom when you can crush your coccyx with such wild abandon that your gait will be the life of the party for the next four weeks!

 

But wait, there’s more!

 

Grind and crunch your bones with ease through the bottom of the drop, then ascend the second hill and do it again! Shake those dorsal rootlets, rattle those ventral rootlets, and jerk that spine like a lasso!

 

The Scenic Railway works by targeting the spine with a succession of speedy and snappy jolts, similar to the rat-tat-tat-tat pops of a tripping circuit breaker. This staccato beating is delivered efficiently and probably not safely so you are guaranteed to hobble away with lasting memories!

Let a random, acute back spasm weeks later be a fond reminder of your bygone health!

Build lifelong rapport with the claims department of your insurance company!

 

Other roller coasters may leave you eager for more rides and you might waste precious minutes enjoying them, but with the Scenic Railway, you’ll be satisfied with just one ride! But don’t take our word for it. Just listen to these rider testimonies!

Richard says, “On a previous visit I purchased two rides for the Scenic Railway but after the first ride, I knew I didn’t need a second, so I used my other ticket elsewhere. I’d never been more sure of anything in my life.”

Megan says, “I was really looking forward to riding the historic Melbourne Scenic Railway. I thought it would be the sheer novelty of having a brakeman that would leave the deepest impression, but was I ever wrong. This wasn’t your normal wooden coaster jostling. Even my hair started coming loose. Tangled hair, tangled spine, the litany of expletives issuing from my mouth in the most uninhibited and incomprehensible stream of consciousness style anyone has ever witnessed since James Joyce diarrheaed out Ulysses—it was the most beautiful and poetic unity of mind and body I’ve ever experienced on a roller coaster!”

 

But wait, there’s more! All this fun is only from the first lap around the park! The Scenic Railway track has two levels of track and you’ll slam into lap two with a resounding blow that comes in two settings. Choose the Bone Zapper mode for on-ride use to bolster your back with a few extra convulsions; choose the Attention Zapper mode for queue use, which will temporarily erase the glazed expressions of you and everyone else in the queue enduring that ten minute dispatch cycle.

 

UH OH—flawless pacing ruined this coaster! With the Scenic Railway, the second half of the ride is such an arrant contrast to the first that you’ll wonder if Luna Park really was telling the truth after all when they closed the coaster from 2007-2008 for what they said was an extensive restoration! Featuring less turbulent drops and a final turn as sedate as Granny tooling around in her Buick, your Scenic Railway ride ends with your mind as tortured as your spine!

 

You’ll respect the muscle and grit those brakemen need to control the train. You’ll love the obvious passion they have for their job. But can you accept the disclaimer they gave you in the station that the ride is old and therefore “a little rough”? Can you pardon what feels like a poor excuse for shoddy maintenance? You can’t go another day without finding out, so buy your Scenic Railway ticket now!

But wait, there’s still more! If you’re tall, you can double the pain value of your Scenic Railway experience for free! Simply sit as you normally would and you’ll receive a mosaic of deep creases and shredded flecks of skin on your knees at no extra charge! That’s back pain and knee pain for the price of one ride!

And that’s not all!

Opt for the back rows and you’ll gain a compendium of profanities to yell, grunt, groan, whimper, and yelp in a discordant and hilarious fashion—and it’s yours free for the whole ride!

So stop living a pain-free life of health and vigor. Don’t spend another day wishing you could play Jenga with your intervertebral discs—get out there and do it! It’s never been easier to be so utterly, utterly disappointed by a roller coaster. Get your grimace on and try the Luna Park Melbourne Scenic Railway today!

 

Sideways Cromulence

I’ve noticed that when enthusiast writers don’t know what to say about a coaster, they often resort to commenting on its laterals. You get the impression the writer was desperately trying to recall something about a particular coaster but coming up dry, and instead of just admitting it, they threw in this pointless sentence about laterals just to have something to say. I once read an article where the only thing the author could say about a Zamperla 80STD was that it had “nice” laterals. Besides the fact that it’s laughable a Zamperla 80STD could be “nice” in any way, there’s also the fact that this has got to be the lamest, vaguest and most uninteresting way to describe a coaster. Except in special cases—Wilde Maus XXL running trimless so your life flashes before your eyes, for example—who actually thinks laterals are a noteworthy feature on roller coasters? Now, as for airtime—yes. Forces so strong I start greying out? Yes. But laterals? Gee, we went around a turn and my body went sideways. Profound.

Naturally, Richard and I have both taken this to heart as an example of what not to do. We take ourselves very seriously as enthusiasts, you see. Otherwise we would be unable to experience the levels of butthurt necessary to be offended by things on the internet, and what kind of enthusiasts would we be then? It is thus very important that we use our time wisely in parks so we may produce trip reports of only the highest quality.

 

Thus, I shall now proceed with a critical and erudite reflection on the powered Silly Serpent. Participant observation comprised the foundational research method of this project, but a face to face interview with Richard while on-ride produced an edifying collaboration of opinion, which I now present:

 

Our ride on Silly Serpent consisted of five circuits.

 

The track layout featured an ascent followed by a downward helix to the right, upon the completion of which the train made a right turn back to the loading platform.

 

At the conclusion of the first circuit, I noted how the downward helix elicited forces that whisked our bodies over to the left side of the car.

I turned to Richard and said, “This ride has some decent laterals.”

As we rounded the bend into the station following the second circuit, I amended my previous statement. I said to Richard, “This ride has good laterals.”

The third lap prompted further amendment. “This ride has nice laterals,” I said.

Richard, meanwhile, had not yet expressed an opinion. It was clear he was deep in thought, taking care to gather enough data before selecting the most appropriate terms for his assessment. I, of course, knew better than to disturb him with any exclamations of fun and/or enjoyment. This is a serious hobby, you know. Finally, after the fourth lap, Richard was prepared to argue his thesis.

He said, “This ride has cromulent laterals.”

By the end of the ride, we were so damn busy laughing, that we—oh. Ahem. Excuse me. I almost had fun there. After a thorough study, we have deduced that Silly Serpent is a smooth and enjoyable ride. It would be problematic, however, to limit our knowledge to this evaluation, so we recommend that future researchers may wish to consider its impact on linguistic proficiency among the enthusiast community (haha not really, the truth is most academics (actually, mostly undergrad students in the humanities) don’t give a fuck if further research is conducted but they suggest it at the end of papers anyway because it sounds noble, takes up space, and will generally add a few extra points to their grade. Academia is swell).

To conclude, it had nice laterals.

 

Scholarship Condemnation

Were you repulsed by that brush with academia? I don’t blame you. Academia is scary.

 

Just ask the fellas living in here. They’ll tell you.

Our next stop was the Ghost Train, a Pretzel dark ride added in the 1930s. There was a lot going on in there. I couldn’t photograph in there, so here is a succinct summary of the happenings within:

 

(And before you ask, of course this is the only reason why I took this photo.)

There was the usual collection of ghost train stuff like monsters glowing neon under black lights, clowns, a guillotine, a dapper old chap donning a top hat on his bare skull—but there were also some less common scenes, such as:

  • A set of hands with no attached body plinking the keys of a piano, which isn’t all that scary in and of itself but I have a lot of childhood memories of dancing to polka tunes from my parents’ player piano, so…
  • A wolf whose mouth suggested it would be a close call between putrefying flesh breath or a jaw locked to your jugular that would bring you down quicker
  • A naked blonde ripping the heads off two equally naked blonde dolls, kind of like that dick Sid with his mutant toys in the first Toy Story movie

And then there was The Book.

It was one of the last scenes. There was a ghoul with a face only his mama could love: knobby skull, one eye bulging out of its socket, tongue lolling out of his mouth. I think he was studying. I mean, he was leering at a book the way Donald Trump appraises women on the 1-10 scale, so in a way that’s studying, I guess. And then he—brace yourselves, for this might give you quite a fright—

He closed the book.

And that was it.

I can’t even say he slammed the book. The sound effect was more along the lines of, say, a college student shutting their Econ 101 book in resigned defeat to begin seeking alternative career paths of the sort that are illegal in a lot of places. But hey, maybe it was a scary book. Or just a generally shitty book. There are plenty of them out there. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Fifty Shades of Grey. Anything by Ann Coulter. But, well, coming from the U.S. where intellectualism is scorned and ridiculed, I’m pretty desensitized to the horror of chucking books and education by the wayside. So this effect was…um…yeah.

 

But there you have it, kids. Stay away from the books. Reading is scary.

 

Sumptuous Class, Sublime Craftsmanship

 

Now this—this—was special.

 

If you think I’ve been a little too harsh with this place—because let’s face it, that Scenic Railway account has no doubt landed me on some shit lists out there—then sit your (probably aching, if you’ve just ridden the Scenic Railway, even if you’re too angry with me to admit it) ass down on the plush velvet seat in this chariot and listen up.

 


This is PTC carousel #30. It was completed in 1913, brought to Luna Melbourne in 1923 after its first home at Sydney’s White City Amusement Park closed, and, as you can see, it’s fucking beautiful.

Although my dad probably no doubt regrets having gotten me started on a hobby that’s taken me to such chic vacation hotspots as Bangladesh and the scenic squat toilets of China, I hope he can appreciate the slightly more rational love of carousels he also instilled in me. When I was little, I loved going to the Plymouth Meeting Mall in Plymouth Meeting, PA because he would take me on the carousel there. It was just one of those production model double decker Venetian ones, probably manufactured by Bertazzon—certainly not anything near as spectacular as a wooden hand carved carousel, but to a four year old that didn’t matter. I thought it was so pretty when it was all lit up and I loved that I could ride up high on the second floor. While intensifying coaster cravings had me apt to shun carousels as “baby rides” when I got older, I’ve since developed a reverence for them that I’d chalk up as “wisdom” were it not for the fact that this is me we’re talking about.

Nevertheless, I’ll make the effort to ride a carousel if I know it’s a spectacular one. Even Richard has picked up a greater appreciation for them, which is really saying something considering that any sane man knows letting a woman into his life is like summoning the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

And speaking of spoils of war like the peace, quiet, and psychological stability of bachelorhood, this carousel’s theme is “War and Peace.” So that chariot where you’re resting your sore ass? That’s the Peace one. The War one is on the opposite side. Between them are 68 horses, placed four abreast, and decorated according to the theme: dark, mighty beasts donning armor and weaponry for War; lighter colored, mellow creatures adorned with flowers for Peace.

 

We chose the two lead horses pulling the Peace chariot because they were closer together and sometimes we’re romantic like that.

 

(Just kidding. Richard was going to go for the plushy chariot for ass/spine restoration purposes until I told him only old people ride in the chariots. I suggested the two nearest horses instead. Said horses then proceeded to land every jump with a jerk and a shudder. It felt like the cranking rods were sticking on every revolution. As I’m sure you can imagine, this astute selection of mine was very popular.)

 

At the turn of the millennium, the park brought on a specialist team to perform an exhaustive restoration, which saw the carousel pretty much stripped down and rebuilt from the ground up. Wear and tear over the decades had seen many of the original hand drawn details painted over, so one of the goals of the restoration was to uncover and recreate that artistry. It was a job that required:

  • A hell of a lot of time (two years)
  • A hell of a lot of money (over $2 million)
  • A hell of a lot of sleuthing (scouring photographs, digging through PTC’s archives)
  • A hell of a lot of patience (a single horse required about 100 hours of work to painstakingly remove all the paint covering the original coat, which was 20 layers thick in some cases).

 

But they did it. And they did it all by hand—carving, painting, detailing—all by hand, just the way it should be.

 

But wait, there’s more!

You’re looking at a 66 key Orchestrophone organ from the Limonaire Freres Company of Paris. It was made circa 1909 and is one of only five in the world. Like everything else, it is handmade, lovingly restored, and as beautiful as a cold bottle of orange Fanta on a hot day.

 

The whole of it—the meticulous craftsmanship of the colors, the detailing, the theming, the organ—makes for one of the richest, most elegant carousels out there. It’s a lesson in class and style that other parks would do well to imitate. But it’s not just the carousel in and of itself that warrants praise. The fact that Luna Park went to such efforts to refurbish it commands even greater respect. Here was a park whose carousel was in a dreadful state: the wood was rotting, the horses were missing body parts, the oil paintings on the rounding boards were water damaged. They could have taken the easy way out and replaced it with some cheapy fiberglass production model. Instead, they took the expensive, time consuming, and challenging road that was no doubt filled with lots of splinters and frustrated expletives.

Any park proud enough of its history and heritage to devote that much energy into preserving it is worthy of the highest commendation.

And yes, I stand by that even when it comes to the Scenic Railway. Perhaps that seems contradictory to my earlier self-shitlisting but hey, I never said I disparaged Luna’s commitment to keep such a rarity going. It may hurt, but just remember that we live in a world with Zamperla Volares.

 

The Sanity Challenge

Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience a park operations event so extraordinary, it becomes part of our shared enthusiast heritage of frequent and gratuitous complaining. Well, sometimes we applaud stuff, like Olympia Looping’s 14 second dispatches (that’s really a thing by the way), but…

 

Actually, just a moment, please.


OH GOD I LOVE YOU

…but, ahem…

…but mostly we like complaining.

Sometimes these complaints are warranted. And sometimes they’re not. (Okay, lots of times they’re not.)

But sometimes, we come across an incident so outrageous, so atrocious, so unbelievably catastrophic, that nothing can, nor probably ever will (sweet mother of fuck, at least we hope so), compare to it. Nothing can prepare us for it. Nothing can save us from it. And nothing can ever reverse the damage. The consequences are real. The fallout is permanent.

Fallout in this case being, of course, newfound excitement for things like dial-up internet, C-SPAN, and listening to a staticky, out of tune piano wheeze through the same loop of something that’s supposed to be music when you’re waiting on hold.

Let me ask you a question. What do you think is the most deceitful thing in all of human history? Religion? Wall Street? The notion that the United States is a land of democracy and equality?

No, no, and no. It’s not those.

 

It’s this sign.

 

Which refers to this ride.

We approached Sky Rider as we did any other Ferris wheel: armed with cameras, ready to capture some aerial shots. There were maybe 15 to 20 people in front of us, so we naturally assumed the 15 minute wait sign was accurate, if not a slight overestimation.

How innocent we were back then.

We entered the queue but made no advancement in it. That wasn’t surprising, though. That’s how Ferris wheel queues work—unload/load until you’ve replaced all the previous cycle’s riders with new ones, then send the wheel around a few revolutions nonstop. Except we remained at a standstill. And remained. And remained. From where we were, we couldn’t see what was going on at the loading platform, but the wheel had long since stopped circling continuously and begun the start/stop process of loading. Yet still we remained. The line wasn’t moving. We surpassed the 15 minute mark, still rooted to the same spot. And then we crept towards 20 minutes…then 25…

At first I occupied myself with the usual medley of queue activities:

 

Scoffing at Richard browsing Facebook on his phone and thinking myself high and mighty for not needing a smartphone to be entertained…

 

Taking artsy photos…

 

Marveling at the poor saps on the Scenic Railway, who looked as though they were mounted on springs, their heads and necks and shoulders convulsing in seemingly masochistic guffaws down every drop…

 

(Not many people know this, but the reason this is called Scenic Eats is because you feast your eyes on those helpless jiggling sacks of flesh and gorge yourself on the smugness that you’re not one of them.)

 

Beginning to wonder if we might have been better off trying our luck on the Arabian Merry because our levels of Australian merriment were dwindling by the second…

 

Recalling the explosive passion of my Valentine’s Day evening, which was, without question, the most ardently my digestive system has ever sung the praises of Australian Chinese food…

 

Wondering if the Twin Dragon pirate ship could spare a dragon to light a fire under the ride operator’s ass…

 

(Dreaming with open eyes? More like being a coma with open eyes.)

…and, finally, enviously eyeing Richard’s iPhone (which I begrudgingly admit, and which will delight him to no end when he reads this.) At the point where even I’m wishing for a smartphone to pass the time in an amusement park, we’ve got a problem. What was going on? When we finally shuffled forward and got a view of the loading platform, we found our answer.

What we saw was so appalling, I can’t tell if it’s the memory of it or the four cups of tea in me right now that’s making me quiver as I write this. This went beyond any Six Flags Day. This went beyond that time at Silverwood when a ride attendant halted all operations for a good 20 seconds to patiently instruct one rider on the merits of wearing a seatbelt. Hell, this even went beyond Chinese operations.

The ride operator was not unloading and reloading seats all in one go.

 

Please notice the number of empty seats.

We watched as the ride operator stopped the wheel, walked over to the car, undid the safety bar, undid the seatbelt, stepped back, waited for the riders to exit, stepped forward, closed and relatched the safety bar, and then return to the operating console. The wheel moved, skipping an occupied car or two, and then stopped again.

The ride operator walked over to the car, undid the safety bar, undid the seatbelt, stepped back, waited for the riders to exit, stepped forward, closed and relatched the safety bar, and then returned to the operating console. Once again, the wheel turned, sending another two occupied cars past the loading platform before stopping. And then—

The ride operator walked over to the car, undid the safety bar, undid the seatbelt, stepped back, waited for the riders to exit, stepped forward, closed and relatched the safety bar, and then returned to the operating console.

And on and on it went, again and again, over and over, skipping over certain passengers to keep the weight balanced. One girl hopped out of her seat with a gleeful “Hooray, I’m getting off!”

Only when the entire wheel was vacant did he begin loading. The new riders walked over and sat on the seat. The ride operator buckled their seatbelt, closed and latched the safety bar, walked back to the operating console. He set the ride in motion, sending empty seats past the loading platform so that new weight could be dispersed around the wheel evenly, before stopping it again.

And then he walked over to the car, undid the safety bar, stepped back, waited for the new riders to sit, stepped forward, buckled their seatbelt, closed and relatched the safety bar, and returned to the operating console. The wheel turned, more empty seats went past, stopped.

And the ride operator walked over to the car, undid the safety bar, stepped back, waited for the new riders to sit, stepped forward, buckled their seatbelt, closed and relatched the safety bar, and returned to the operating console.

Over and over, until all the seats were full. Then he sent the wheel around for its few revolutions before doing it all again. Unload all the seats, load all the seats, always two mutually exclusive procedures.

Forty five minutes—FORTY FIVE MINUTES—after we passed the 15 minute mark, I shared that little girl’s cheer from earlier as we finally disembarked. As for the ride itself? Well, the view was splendid. We had plenty of time to admire it. In fact, if the seats had been facing the city instead of the bay, I probably could have passed for a native if someone had asked for directions later. We got our aerial photos, too.

I mean, it turns out photography wasn’t allowed, but by the time the ride operator made that announcement—which was only when he finally had the wheel fully loaded and it had dawned on me why pregnancy was on that list of health conditions we might identify with upon our departure—we’d already taken the photos we wanted and had moved on to counting our increasing wrinkles and grey hairs.

 

(You always hear the phrase “shot of a lifetime” and that day, I finally learned what it meant. This was worth precious moments I’ll never get back, right? Of course, you’ll have to excuse the blurriness; my glasses prescription had expired by the time I took this.)

Richard and I staggered away different people from the Sky Rider. Our eyes were glazed, our brains were numb. There was no way to unsee what we had witnessed. We had lost our innocence. There were forces in this world darker than we had ever thought possible. There were operations worse than Indiana Beach under Morgan RV Resorts. Policies more pointless than a nighttime “visual scan” on Boulder Dash. Inefficiency that not even a Happy Valley park on a bad day could top.

Luna Park, why—why, oh why, oh why—would you not combine the unloading and loading processes? What could possibly possess you to make them separate processes; what could possibly convince you it was reasonable to drag each out even longer by not attending to the cars in sequence when there were enough people in the queue to allow it? Why would you waste time ensuring proper balance when it solved itself?

I never thought there could be something harder to understand in this world than organic chemistry, but shit, there it was.

 

And so, at the end, there was Richard muttering to himself as he texted a friend we planned to meet for lunch that we’d now be late following this “little time out.”

As for me, I wondered how many benzodiazepines it would take to soothe my infuriation after such a “gentle” ride.

 

So. Conclusion.

Luna Park Melbourne was a mixed bag. It didn’t live up to the outstanding days from earlier in the week. Part of that I attribute to the crowds. It was a picture perfect day on a weekend and the place was jumping. When we arrived, we had to wait a good three minutes for the crosswalk in front of the park to clear before we could proceed to find parking. That, of course, is not a direct criticism of the park itself. Parks need crowds, and just because I don’t like them (and just because the Melbourne lot seemed a bit less…let’s say refined) doesn’t mean the park is at fault.

The park is at fault, however, for their senseless operational policies in handling these crowds. The Scenic Railway’s ten minute dispatches were unwarranted and there is nothing to excuse the outrageous asininity that was the Sky Rider.

That being said, though, it could have been a lot worse if the employees had graduated from the Aer Lingus Academy of Customer Service, whose core curriculum includes such fine courses as “Introduction to Nagging, Scorning, and Belittling the Customer” and “Mastering the Art of Frowning.” Instead, Luna Melbourne’s employees were of the caliber I’d come to expect from Australians. Our visit began with the admissions girl giving that kindly warning of our imminent physical woes and ended with another worker cheerfully inviting us to add more clutter to our home with her offer to take as many souvenir park maps as we wanted.

Plus their purple uniforms were fabulous.

Nice as they were, though, it’s the operations that have left the deepest impression on me, unfortunately. Well, mental impression, that is.

The Scenic Railway took care of the physical scarring.

***

Today’s trip report has been brought to you by the letters S and C, and the number 7!

 

If this were true to Sesame Street form, we’d all be singing and dancing right now. So, are you ready? Here we go!

Suuunnnny day!
Sweepin’ the crowwwwds this way!
On my way to where the lines are long!

Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Luna Melbourne?

Stand a spell
Be wonderin’, ‘What the hell?’
(Friendly workers though,
Their saving grace!)

Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Luna Melbourne?

Scary books!
Laterals off the hook!
A carousel to ride a noble steed!

And a scenic railway where,
Where you will internally bleed!

So come on by the bayside
Mr. Moon will open wide
To enthusiasts like you—
Enthusiasts like
Wait ew not them anything but them on this

Suuunnnny day!
Sweepin’ the crowwwwds this way!
On my way to where the lines are long!

Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Luna Melbourne

How to get to Luna Melbourne
How to get to…

Warner Bros. Movie World

*record scratch*

*freeze frame*

Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation. Well, I’ll tell you.

It all started with the Big Bang theory. And no, I don’t mean the sitcom, but hey, while we’re on the subject of trash TV, let me explain myself.

I love the show Ancient Aliens.

Seriously, I do. If you haven’t come across it, it’s a documentary series on the History Channel that explores the idea that extraterrestrials visited Earth in the ancient past and played a vital role in humanity’s development. Now, I have learned over the years that proclaiming your love of Ancient Aliens will very quickly tell you who your real friends are. For some reason, a lot of people get really offended at these sorts of hypotheses. I’m not sure why. It’s not like you have to buy everything they’re saying. I don’t. But I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to indulge your imagination and ponder all the what ifs raised in each episode—things like ancient gods actually being flesh and blood extraterrestrials, or the Maya being an alien race from the Pleiades, or the existence of pyramids on Antarctica. It’s healthy to suspend skepticism now and again. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Every time they have David Wilcock on with his conspiracy theories and stupid douchebag hair, I want to smack the shit out of him too. My point, however, is that a little bit of imagination is a beautiful thing. It keeps us guessing, mindful, receptive—perhaps even humbled—to the wonders of that enormous cosmos out there.

And that brings us to the concept of parallel universes.

For those of you with better things to do with your time than marvel over Giorgio Tsoukalos’s magnificent hair, the idea of parallel universes basically boils down to this: our reality is not the only reality. This universe coexists with infinite others, and within those other universes are alternate dimensions and realities. Somewhere out there is a universe where the Nazis won WWII—and somewhere else is a universe where Hitler was accepted to art school and Nazism never happened. Somewhere there is a universe in which the dinosaurs never went extinct, a universe that saw 9/11 thwarted, a universe where November 8, 2016 was not the day the United States took a massive shit upon its dignity, set it on fire, and then let the Saturday Night Live sketches write themselves.

From our perspective, that means there is theoretically a universe where Disney failed, or where we are still doubling over in pain and/or laughter at that ridiculous triple helix on SFFT’s Rattler, or where no coaster enthusiast is ever a catty twat on the internet.

Scientifically speaking, the concept of parallel universes has to do with quantum mechanics and other things way beyond my ability to explain. Ancient Aliens has entertained the notion that extraterrestrials inhabit a parallel universe and that they have the ability to cross over into our reality. There are also stories out there of people who claim to have inexplicably wound up in one of these alternate universes for a brief period of time.

Hogwash, you say? Complete and total baloney? More sniggering remarks that for some reason comprise a heavily swine-based vocabulary? Well, you can put a lid on it (a Ziploc or aluminum foil would work too) because I will prove to you that crossovers between universes are decidedly, unequivocally real. I will prove to you that there is an alternate reality out there, and that’s because I experienced it myself.

That alternate reality was Warner Bros. Movie World.

 

Warner Bros. Movie World is one of four parks located within ten miles of each other along Australia’s famed Gold Coast. I suppose you could say the Gold Coast is Australia’s Orlando. In many ways, it sure does feel like some alternate Orlando universe: their Sea World is spelled as two words, not one; they still have a Wet’n’Wild; and while the place is teeming with tourists, they aren’t the race of baboon shittingly maniacal, Trump loving white trash that one tends to encounter in Florida.

And, of course, like Orlando and many other places, the Gold Coast has its token movie-themed park.

 

At first glance, it may not seem that unusual. After all, if a movie-themed park has its name spelled in an art deco font at the entrance, how different could it be?

Well, dear readers, I think you’ll have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

 

::excuse to put in sorta-kinda-Toto-lookalike photo yes mmhmmm you’re welcome::

 

And that’s because walking through this gate will make you question the reality you thought you knew. It will take you to a place that seems both familiar and foreign, a place where not everything is as it seems, a place that will challenge your beliefs and convictions. And, perhaps most perplexingly of all, it is a place that will defy the laws of physics, deceive your spatial perception, and bend time.

The latter it does by having some of the worst theme park operations known to humanity.

 

And the first test is here.

Do you remember the part in Interstellar with the all-water planet and how its proximity to a black hole distorted time so that one hour there was equivalent to seven Earth years?

 

In this queue, one train dispatch interval is equivalent to one New York to LA flight beside a screaming toddler.

 

In brightest day, in blackest night…well, it doesn’t matter. All the evil shall escape your sight and that power ring will be loooooong depleted of its charge by the time you make it onto the train.

It started normally enough. Green Lantern Coaster opened in 2011, and we proceeded towards it in standard ride-the-credit-Richard-doesn’t-have-first-even-though-Megan-would-rather-ride-the-Intamin-but-sheesh-that-boy-gets-fidgety-if-we-don’t-do-it-his-way-so-alright-already fashion. We joined the queue and walked past some cutout figures of good guys and bad guys. Where else had I seen that kind of cheap & cheerful superhero theming that no one actually pays any attention to whatsoever?

 

Ah, yes. Have a Six Flags Day and all. Except we were in no danger of that here.

Or were we?

The queue wasn’t moving. Had the ride broken down? No, there was a train going up the lift. Perhaps I’d been zoning out? Maybe the queue was moving and I just hadn’t registered it, the same way I don’t absorb the words sometimes when I read?

But no, this wasn’t like the time I was trying to get through a chapter about the historiography of shareholder value ethos on Wall Street the day Wildfire was announced (I’m really sorry to say that I’m not making that up). When we finally reached the station, I was a) not sure what day or even month it was anymore; b) curious to see what they wrote in my missing person report; and c) more flabbergasted than I was when I learned that mushy peas are a thing.

Would you like to know how we go about fighting evil with this Green Lantern?

  1. Two trains, seating eight each, roll into the station.
  2. Restraints unlock, riders disembark, riders proceed down the exit ramp.
  3. Trains sit empty.
  4. Trains continue sitting empty because there isn’t anyone lined up behind the air gates.
  5. Ride Op 1 comes over to the head of the queue, opens the barrier, counts off the 16 guests it will take to fill the trains, and assigns each of them a row.
  6. The other two trains that were on the course are by this point stacked on the brake run.
  7. Ride Op 1 double checks the number of people he’s let through and where he’s placed them.
  8. Ride Op 1 begins chatting with Ride Op 2, who is at the controls. It is a pleasant chat. There is laughter.
  9. Ride Op 3 joins said chat.
  10. Trains remain empty in the station.
  11. Trains remain stacked on the brake run.
  12. Casual chat continues.
  13. Richard and I share A Look.
  14. Richard and I begin counting how many flags might be around.
  15. Ride Op Roundtable concludes.
  16. Ride Op 1 announces to guests in the air gates that they must buckle the seat belt first, THEN pull down the lap bar. Got it? Seat belt FIRST, lap bar SECOND? Okay? You guys got that, right? Okay.
  17. Air gates finally open, guests proceed to train and do up their restraints.
  18. Restraints are checked with all the efficiency of Windows installing updates.
  19. Trains dispatch.
  20. Stacked trains roll into the station.
  21. Repeat.

Let me tell you, it takes less time to follow a 21 step instruction manual from Ikea—and that includes all snack, drink, and crying-cause-you-fucked-up-three-steps-ago breaks. Of course, if I were a supervillain like Parallax, this is exactly the kind of guy I’d like to be up against. Why, I could paint the whole world yellow, develop and release a superbug that infected everyone with jaundice, personally unscrew and replace every lightbulb on the planet with a yellow one, and be reclining on a beach in Mexico sipping a golden margarita and listening to “Yellow Light” by Of Monsters and Men before even Ryan Reynolds realized this film was a terrible mistake. Hell, I wouldn’t have even had to do that. I could have just waited around for 2016 to happen and lapped up everyone’s fear then.

Stop exaggerating, you’re probably thinking. Okay, fine. Parallax wouldn’t have had to wait until 2016. Parallax could have just as easily feasted off fear when a train derailed a mere month after our visit.

But anyway, as we stood there bemoaning our lack of foresight in bringing some Velcro orthopedic shoes and a couple bags of Werther’s Original for the next few decades ahead, there was something particularly irksome in the fact that we were enduring all this for an S&S El Loco. At least with a 21 step Ikea manual, your headache at the end comes with a sense of accomplishment and a reasonably priced coffee table. But the cranial (and shoulder and spine) trauma that would follow this 21 step bungle would carry no reward except a ticked box on a list nobody cares about and further justification that El Crappo is a better moniker for this ride type than El Loco.

But all was not as it seemed.

 

This wasn’t an El Crappo.

We boarded the train and instead of the usual two ratcheting rocky nubs that bore into your shoulders like the way a 9-5 office job crushes your happiness down a dismal slump towards ennui, there was…a lap bar.

And instead of listening to my mind’s usual El Crappo album of expletives, more expletives, and existential questions peppered with expletives on why I bother with this hobby, there was…an onboard soundtrack.

And the latter didn’t catch my ear solely because I was gushing gratitude over its playing the safety spiel on the lift hill, which probably took about six days off the dispatch interval. Nor did it catch my ear because I happened to get a strong whiff of grease with it as we took to the lift, which instantly dispelled my frustrations and centered me in all the sensory details of the moment (hey, some people swear by lavender and yoga for that sort of thing; some people lie and swear by lavender and yoga for that sort of thing because they regret spending $30 on a yoga mat that will spend all but the first two weeks of January rolled up in a closet; I swear by the smell of coaster grease baking on a lift as I pat for reassurance the zippered pocket containing my Excedrin. Whatever puts you in your happy place, y’know?).

 

No, it caught my ear because it synced with the ride action as meticulously as Jake Tapper’s facial expressions correlate with the viscosity of Kellyanne Conway’s fountain of bullshit.

 

At the crest of the drop, both the train and the music slowed. We seemed to hang for a few dramatic seconds over the precipice. It actually felt like there was a holding brake up there, even though there wasn’t. Such was the power of the soundtrack, though. We know how strongly music can influence mood. It’s why I’ve never been able to listen to the whole of “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, a song so wretchedly dreary and boring that pharmaceutical companies ought to be using it to sell depression medication (“If I lay here, if I just lay here, will you lie with me and let these dismal monotones persuade you that life is bleak and heavy so ask your doctor to try Cymbalta today?”). It’s why I once heard a radio host comment how it was impossible for “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People not to put you in a good mood (remember that one? The song with whispers of Columbine in it that was some toe tappin’, finger snappin’ good fun?).

In the case of Green Lantern, the slow crest over the drop matched the decrease in the music’s tempo. It created a mood of suspense and did more to amplify the anticipation of the forthcoming drop than even the round of Aussie swearing accompanying it (which is saying something, because Aussies are exceptionally good at verbally capturing a moment).

The increase in velocity on the drop came with an increase in tempo. We fell into the beyond vertical drop with a peppy techno beat in our ears, and for the first time on an El Loco that somersaulting sensation was appreciable. Of course, noticing this could have just been because I wasn’t engaged in my usual futile El Crappo battle of protecting my clavicle, but if Usher can sing about nonconsensual sex atop the sticky dried piss and fecal bacteria rioting upon every surface in a nightclub with the voice of an angel, then I think you can understand why music enhanced the ride experience.

Music was only part of the equation, though. There were two other components that led to my epiphany that an El Loco need not be an El Crappo. The first was the lap bars. The second, surprisingly, was the block brakes. Normally we see blocks as necessary evils—they’re crucial for safety, but they often rudely interrupt a ride’s pacing. Not so here, though. S&S designed a layout that works with the blocks. Two elements in particular work better at slower speeds:

1) The overbanked turn: On our second ride, I had a righthand outside seat. When the whole train tilted to the right after the first block and I could very much feel my rear tilting out of the seat with it, well…let’s just say I would completely understand and totally not judge if a bacteria culture from Usher’s syphilis shack was indistinguishable from one taken from the seats of the train that derailed.

2) The prolonged upside down section: Following the overbanked turn, the track twists around to invert the train, but instead of righting itself immediately, the train remains upside down and continues in a straight line for a few seconds. Let me tell you, hang time sure is marvelous when your shoulders aren’t mashed into an OTSR.

And then, of course, there was the finale—that slowly unfurling zero-G roll into the rapid fire horseshoe turn that was what it always should have been: fun. No more nasty clonk to the head. Just…fun.

Mix in a soundtrack that syncs flawlessly with the pacing and agility of those elements and you have one greatly perturbed Megan, and not just because I found myself confronted with a truly fun El Loco, something I didn’t think existed, especially after the shade of red Steel Hawg had colored my shoulders the previous summer (although to be fair, Steel Hawg was already at a disadvantage simply for existing at Indiana Beach). No, I was perturbed because I had to concede that Richard’s insistence that we get his new credit first wasn’t the worst way we could have begun the day.

Actually, I’ve digressed. We didn’t head for the coasters right away when we arrived. Instead, we opted for a photo run before dumping everything in a locker because Warner Bros. Movie World has what must be one of the most neurotic loose article policies in the industry. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Let’s look at some positives first because this park has plenty of them. At the top of the list:

 

Presentation…

…and theming.  (The WB Kids section is particularly well done.)

If there’s one thing movie-themed parks do well, it’s providing embarrassing reminders that I used to consider Cedar Fair parks as “theme parks.” Oh yes, those were some unenlightened times, folks. I’ve since realized that calling a couple of barrels and wagon wheels on a slab of concrete a “theme park” is taking the piss,* but it’s still worth a cringe.

*okay, yes, there are exceptions. The Western town at Knott’s is terrific. And all those trashcans at California’s Great America are extraordinary. So many small portraits of the park within the park itself—my god, it’s simply brilliant. So profound. So meta.

Anyway, Warner Bros. Movie World is no exception to the genre.

 

And while it does have its token Western town, it extends well beyond that.

 

The heart of the park is its covered Main Street. It features all the pastels and neon of classic Hollywood, except instead of drug addicts and vegans, there’s a Ben & Jerry’s (but not to worry, the prices at that Ben & Jerry’s will ensure you get just as cleaned out as if you’d gone to Whole Foods and met your dealer in the parking lot afterwards).

 

See? Authentic American experience all the way.

 

At the end of the street is this park that provides ample shaded seating where you can watch the afternoon parade, hold a Chunky Monkey cone in one hand and your emaciated wallet in the other, and film your children joining the daily Looney Tunes dance party so you can embarrass them with it on social media when they’re old enough to hate you for it.

 

At certain times, the space also functions as a reminder to take your birth control.

 

Of course, it couldn’t be a movie park without a stunt driving show. Unfortunately, our timing was off for both performances of Hollywood Stunt Driver 2 today, so I can only show you Richard’s 2009 photo. I bet they caught the bad guy, though. I know this because they are doing the driving on two wheels thing. I’m not sure why law enforcement doesn’t use this in the real world. It’s always the most effective and not at all ridiculous looking way to catch a criminal.

 

Just like this is the most subtle way to sneak up behind a wascally wabbit.

 

The theming even extends to the parking lot, and it’s not just for show, either. For instance, this themed sign serves a practical purpose because it cautions you that a) your headlights might be on and b) everything in this godforsaken country is out to kill you.

Now, I should point out that not all the theming is on point.

 

For one thing, I’m pretty sure an all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta, and dessert buffet wasn’t what Rick had in mind when he predicted the beginning of a beautiful friendship (although it is most assuredly what I had in mind when I saw the sign in the window).

 

And it’s really not a true Tijuana experience without the murders, seedy alleys, 24 hour pharmacies, and the constant fear of getting kidnapped, is it?

 

Then there’s this. I mean, come on. In what America would this be realistic? Where are all the guns? Why is the police car not flipped over and on fire amidst a protest? Where are all the Republicans trying to blame Muslim immigrants while ignoring the real issues? I just…I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine an America where the GOP doesn’t have circjerks on the regular with gun lobbyists and white supremacists. Such an absurd universe couldn’t possibly exist…could it? I mean, until a few minutes ago it had seemed inconceivable that an El Loco could be good, so…?

And then, a few minutes later, I had my first encounter with a loose articles policy more neurotic than a Woody Allen trope, and I didn’t know what was real anymore.

 

Escape from what? This plane of existence and everything I thought was reality? Because that’s sure what it felt like.

 

First of all: yes, it is the best coaster in the park. I won’t leave you in suspense on that verdict.

I, on the other hand, had to wait in suspense on that verdict. Then I waited in boredom. Then annoyance. Then I was hungry, so I began mentally compiling a list of things we’d need at Tesco when we got home and that’s how the hope that Tropicana might still be on sale became the most exciting thing in my life at that moment.

I said earlier that we dumped everything in a locker before riding anything. We opted for a $10 all day locker so we could photograph and ride as we pleased. I’m pretty sure there are single use lockers as well, but if you’re planning on riding a lot, it’s easier—and cheaper—to go for an all day locker and be done with it. Normally I’m reluctant to part with my fanny pack since it makes me look so chic and fashionable, but I knew it was the right choice when, as we approached the entrance, Richard said, “Hmmmm, they don’t have the wand today.”

“The wand?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “Last time I was here they passed a wand over you to make sure you weren’t carrying anything.”

“Are you serious?”

“As serious as I was when I told you how they ordered me last time to remove a single tissue from a zipped pocket.”

“But…I wasn’t sure about believing you then,” I said.

“When have I ever lied to you?” Richard asked indignantly.

“You tell me I’m beautiful even when my face is covered in pimples. Surely you understand my skepticism.”

At that moment, I received two things: 1) A Look from Richard, and 2) truth staring me in the face as harshly as the bathroom light reveals my pores’ indefatigable zeal to look as awful as possible.

The attendant at the entrance noticed a park map in the back pocket of a man in front of me. The back pocket. You know, the one you sit on. The one on which your full body weight rests. The one where something flat and small like a park map will be pinned down, and even if it somehow defied the odds and slipped out, who cares because it’s just a piece of paper. Well, the attendant cared. “You’ll have to put that in a locker,” she informed him. When he finally stopped laughing at such a ridiculous statement and realized he couldn’t ride until he forked over some change to store that single piece of paper, he did what any sane person would do: he threw it away. One wonders just how much waste results from park maps tossed away like this in a year.

Entry to the queue required passing marks on both an oral and visual exam. We were first questioned if we had anything in our pockets, which I presume was a formality to make the ensuing scrutiny of the hip/groin area less awkward. It was clear she had been trained to look for the outlines of objects tucked into pockets—outlines like the dangerous rectangle of a park map. Or the sinister bulge of a wadded up tissue in a zipped pocket. Or maybe an object that, you know, is actually worth noticing. But I guess you can’t be too careful. After all, a falling park map might give someone a paper cut and gosh, that would be horrific.

Anyway, the attendant let us through once she was satisfied we weren’t smugglers. Let me tell you, if they’d spent even half as much time training their staff on efficient operations as they had on sniffing out renegade slips of paper, Superman’s throughput would have been like this:

Instead? Well, here are the numbers:

  • Queue time: 45 minutes
  • Trains operating: 1
  • Ride time: ~1:40
  • Dispatch interval: 6 minutes

Six. Minutes.

The funny thing is that the story behind the ride is that you’re in a collapsing subway station and you need to evacuate. Like all transportation services, Metropolis Rapid Transit has an emergency action plan in place for this sort of thing. Here it is:

Metropolis Rapid Transit Emergency Evacuation Plans Manual

  • Stay calm and await instructions from the designated ride attendant.
  • Your evacuation train will arrive at the loading platform. It will arrive empty because it already discharged its prior load of evacuees at a different platform.
  • Stay calm and do exactly what the ride attendants tell you to do, which will be nothing.
  • No, really. Your evacuation train is cleared, ready, and waiting; the designated ride attendant is standing at the head of the queue, but you are to remain in place doing absolutely fuck-all for a further twenty to thirty seconds.
  • Pay attention when the attendant finally begins counting off riders and assigning them rows in the train.
  • You may wonder why this part wasn’t done while the train was transporting other evacuees. Do not worry. This is normal behavior.
  • The attendant will momentarily halt the queue to ensure her row assignments have been followed.
  • You may wonder again why you are losing these precious few seconds to a task that seems like it should have been completed while the train was transporting other evacuees. You may find these thoughts distressing. Do you best to remain calm.
  • By this point, you might be listening to the fourth or fifth repeat of the safety video, which asks that everyone pay attention, even frequent travelers. Be prepared to ponder if they’re being ironic or not.
  • Pay attention when the attendant returns to his/her post and calls out for single riders and any other groupings that may be needed to fill the train. Always be alert—your vigilance may be your ticket to an early escape.
  • You may have conflicting thoughts at this stage. Your perfectly reasonable assessment that all of this could have been done while the train was transporting other evacuees may be alleviated by the ride attendant’s admirable effort to fill every seat, but beware: this clemency will likely be short-lived.
  • You may notice that there are no air gates. Instead, there are actual doors. Please remain calm even as you a) peek through the cracks at the train that’s sat empty for a good two to three minutes at this stage, and b) realize that the reason for not lining up behind these doors earlier can’t possibly be safety related since a floor to ceiling door is a rather effective barrier from entering the ride area, the awareness of which thereby eliminates the last acceptable explanation for something that is starting to feel like a deliberately performed farce. Again, these are normal and perfectly commonsensical thoughts.
  • The doors will open to the loading platform when all preparations are complete.
  • You’re dead because the station already collapsed.

I’m kidding, of course. You’ll have already succumbed to an apoplectic fit well before the roof caves in.

So why did we put ourselves—twice—at the mercy of a transit operation more inefficient than SEPTA Regional Rail?

 

Because DAMMMMMNNNN, that’s why.

Superman Escape is both dark ride and coaster, and the two are brilliantly linked. It’s not one of those coasters where the ride and theming are separate entities and you forget all about the latter as soon as you board the train, and then there’s no mention of it again until you’re exiting through the gift shop. Take Raging Bull, for example. On-ride, you’d never know it was supposed to be themed to a raging bull, mostly because raging bulls typically don’t trim their levels of rage three times in a 70 second period, but at any rate, it doesn’t matter. Large coasters can get away with this sort of thing because their main draw will always be the track layout itself, not what’s around it. Besides, creating a totally immersive experience for a hyper or giga coaster would be a gargantuan challenge (not that I don’t hold out hope that someone will someday Psyké Underground-ify a Mack spinning megacoaster…someone do this. Oh god, please someone do this). An Intamin accelerator like Superman Escape therefore doesn’t need theming to be a good ride.

But it does have theming. And, far from being a jumble of props decorating the trackbed, this theming works so well with the nature of the ride that you’d think the storyline came first and the coaster was designed around it rather than the other way around. And just what in particular, you may wonder, links these two so effectively?

 

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s—

 

It’s Super Planking Man!

Yes, it’s Super Planking Man, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities that influenced mortal men to lie facedown in ridiculous locations because cat memes weren’t enough. Super Planking Man, who can change the velocity of a train from 0 to 62 in 2 seconds and bend frowns upside down into stupid grins with his bare badassery. And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth and justice because that’s what you need to do against the new American way.

 

But really, look at it.

Every time I caught a glimpse of this thing going around the track, I did a double take because it looked like the train was shedding some vital piece. Of course, being from Intamin, this is not an entirely unreasonable assumption, but no matter how many times I saw it, I had to pause. My thoughts repeatedly performed the same two-step dance all afternoon, which went like this: what the—oh right, tee hee. You have to admit, it looks kind of funny—yet it is such a clever way to tie theming to the physical ride sensation that, much like Richard’s endless supply of corny puns, I can’t help but like it.

If you actually manage to reach a train despite the Metropolis Rapid Transit Emergency Evacuation procedure, the earthquake will commence exactly the way it would in real life: with the voice of a guy who sounds like he should be talking you through how to program the remote control to your new Xfinity TV. “Attention! Attention!” he chirps. “The earthquake tremors are increasing. Move the train to Metropolis Station, and then make sure your TV is set to HDMI 1-Cable input.”

Overacted Generic White Guy Voice 1 then gives way to Overacted Generic White Guy Voice 2, who says he’s from maintenance and that there are reports of severe tremors in the main subway. He performs all this with the sort of delighted lilt that children use when playing pretend, so you can be assured you’re in the worst possible hands for this emergency because you know he’s going to abandon his post as soon as Mom comes out with the Fla-Vor-Ice pops (I think that’s also the same Overacted Generic White Guy Voice that exclaims that something’s about to blow with about as much conviction as a woman on a diet vowing to eat just one brownie). The scenery accompanying the medley of voices, sirens, and crash sound effects includes flickering lights, water gushing down a stairwell (which was not turned on today), and an elaborate display of two police cars collapsed through a jagged hole with their red and blue lights flashing upon a tangle of wires and debris. By far the best effect was a wall of lockers toppling forward, metal hinges screeching and doors banging into each other, because I could imagine with horror all the dangerous park maps in them.

By the time you reach the launch track, one of the Overacted Generic White Guy voices informs you that “Tunnel collapse is imminent! Eight seconds to cave in.” Apart from the fact that a) I don’t know about you, but I can think of better things to do during an earthquake than calculate the exact second of my death and b) we’d have had a hell of a lot longer than eight seconds if we hadn’t farted around so much earlier, I was overjoyed: no matter how many times I experience it, those few seconds of looking down an Intamin launch track—seeing that straightaway opened up before you, watching the magnetic antirollback fins retract, feeling the train roll back to lock into place, tensing your whole body as you wait for it—well, as far as endorphins go, that ranks right up there with puppies.

 

(Speaking of which, here’s something to break up all this text.)

I was still half convinced the next thing I’d hear would be the Xfinity guy teaching me how to screw the coax cable into the RF connector, but instead, there was Superman telling us not to worry: he had this.

And then he pushed us to safety.

 

By push, I of course mean some hydraulics and cables made a convincing impression that the fiberglass model planking behind the train was really the Man of Steel himself.

 

And for the next few seconds, I stopped thinking about inept operations and Tesco and cable installation. Some people—celebrities, humblebrags, and liars, mostly—like to prattle on about meditation and how it’s helped them “cultivate mindfulness.” Never mind the fact that the original mindfulness guru was a guy who founded a religion that’s based on doing nothing for hours at a time as a cover for being a deadbeat dad (I’m serious.  Go read up on Buddhism if you don’t believe me). The point is that forcing yourself to focus on nothing but the present moment is supposed to make you happier. For some reason, this is supposed to involve a lot of breathing, obsessively measuring that breathing, and not making any attempt to come up with a different verb than “cultivating” to describe this activity.

Screw that.

Few things are better at reminding you of the right the fuck here and now than an Intamin launch. It’s this triad of suddenness, speed, and intensity that makes me feel so alive and happy, just so unbelievably happy, because all my senses are consumed by the feeling that I’m flying. Any on-ride photo set up on the launch track will invariably feature me with the stupidest, most unflattering grin on my face that I would normally worry about being preserved for eternity in someone’s souvenir collection, except here no one buys any souvenirs because their money is stowed far away in lockers.

 

So anyway, Superman pushed us away from danger.

It was glorious.

 

There was airtime off of this (or there would have been if the force of the launch hadn’t pressed the restraint into my thighs).

 

There were gray-out spots in these low to the ground turns.

 

There was this ejector airtime hill (well, a teasing of it; again, restraints).

 

Then Superman pushed us back into the danger.

No, really, that’s what happens. I’m not really sure why he would blast right back into the building he just saved us from. Maybe he was trying to impress a girl. Guys do stupid shit for girls all the time, like grunting loudly at the gym or being crocodile appetizers or being from Ireland and inviting me into their life.

But I’d bet he was trying to make up for being a little small in the footprint department (if you know what I mean). Superman certainly isn’t winning any awards for size. And yeah, the action finishes a bit, er, prematurely.

 

But it’s one hell of a ride while it lasts.

 

Smooth, powerful, forceful, and fast: one mighty fine Intamin, all things considered.

 

Not smooth, too powerful, too forceful, and not over fast enough: this.

 

In 1995, Vekoma passed up a prime opportunity to market their then-new SLC with the moniker Movie World chose: Lethal Weapon: The Ride. Truly there has never been a more appropriate name for one of these things, but in 2012 it was overhauled and emerged with new trains and a new name: Arkham Asylum—Shock Therapy.

 

And the thing is, that might actually be a better name for it.

 

See, after I escaped the asylum, I didn’t feel quite right. I was full of doubts. I didn’t feel fit for reintroduction into society. Something shocking happened there. Something changed me.

 

I…I…well I…I wanted to go back. To the asylum. I wanted to go back to the asylum. I needed to go back to the asylum.

The first step in treating any mental health issue is realizing you need help. We were standing in line for Green Lantern when it happened. The afternoon was drawing to a close and we were assessing how to spend our remaining time.

“Is there anything else you want to do?” Richard asked.

Admitting your weaknesses, admitting you need help can be hard. I was silent a few seconds as sanity and insanity tried to wrest control of my voice. To this day, I’m still not sure which one won.

“I really want to ride the SLC again,” I said.

Silence. How could there be words? How could there be any way to prepare for such a statement? The look Richard gave me was enough to communicate the gravity of the situation. I had said the unspeakable, I had professed the unthinkable: I had just renounced one of the pillars of coaster enthusiasm. I was a disgrace to the high moral standards and the sanctity of this hobby; I had dishonored the intelligence, tact, and refinement of that enviable class of people known as coaster enthusias…oh crikey, I really was delirious.

“No, I’m serious,” I declared. “It deserves a second ride.”

No one in their right mind willingly rides an SLC more than once (or even once, for that matter). What was I doing? No, I belonged in that asylum. I bravely looked into Richard’s eyes. It was a defining moment in our relationship. Would he remain by my side? Or would he make me fight my demons alone? Would he—oh, God forbid, no, no, no—would he abandon me to the American health care system?

No, he decided. He couldn’t be that callous and cruel. Couples who endure SLCs together stay together.

 

We dutifully returned to check ourselves in. The straitjackets were fitted, the treatment began, and within seconds we were laughing maniacally, convulsing with hysterics, and reveling in a condition that I’m pretty sure is classified in the DSM5 as “Side Splitting Amusement at Valiant Turd Polishing Endeavors-itis.”

Because guys, being serious—it was still shit. But it wasn’t the level of shit it normally is. Like, if you consider a normal SLC to be of, say, a post-Indian curry level of shit, then this was more of a probably-shouldn’t-have-had-a-second-bran-muffin sort: a pretty regular level of shit, but not as messy. Much more manageable. More of the hanging-out-and-browsing-Reddit-on-the-phone type than the fainting-onto-the-bathroom-floor-because-you-ate-green-peppers-you-idiot-and-now-your-guts-are-a-roiling-satanic-hellfire-and-yes-that-really-happened-to-me-once type.

The reason you don’t need to wonder afterward just how many painkillers/whiffs of Febreze are safe to ingest at once is the KumbaK trains. The usual SLC restraint is a claustrophobic monstrosity whose only redeeming quality is providing a sturdy support for mashing one side of your head into as you make a futile attempt to stabilize your skull (even though you might question why you’re even bothering to protect a brain that ought to have known better than to put you in this situation in the first place). The Arkham Asylum restraints, on the other hand, are open and free—and rather unsettlingly so. The only over the shoulder components are two fabric belts. They attach to an overhead lap bar. The belts do conform to your body when you pull the bar down, yet they still seem so flimsy.

 

The Vekoma restraints were suffocating; the KumbaK ones almost induce vertigo, especially when you’re ascending a lift that doesn’t have a platform beneath it like the B&M inverts do. There’s a real sense of vulnerability there.

 

But don’t let the novelty fool you. Beneath it is that shuddery, jerky, bouncy, shaky catastrofuck we all know and love.

You will still be pounded from side to side and back and forth and up and down like a seesaw riding a yoyo when you hit the base of the drop.

 

You will still go smacking into the seat back before the third inversion as hard as Republicans slam doors to logic and reason.

 

You will still automatically tense up as the train twitches its way through the inline twists because the last thirty seconds have given you the muscle memory of an athlete who’s trained for years.

But you’ll do it all with a sense of incredulity because this time, it’s enjoyable. Sure, “enjoyable” is a purely relative term in this situation, but to be able to relax and laugh at how dreadful an SLC is instead of focusing all your energy on defensive riding—well, you can’t deny that’s a mighty big improvement, can you?

 

www.frinkiac.com

It’s like this scene in The Simpsons where the Very Tall Man turns the tables on Nelson: the infamous bully has been knocked down a few pegs.

And it wasn’t just the absence of the ear/temple/skull beating tactile experience that was different. Oh no, this bad boy was a multisensory experience.

My first SLC was the Great Nor’Easter at Morey’s Piers, and I made myself ride it again and again until I could get through the whole thing with my eyes open (look, I was 9, I didn’t know any better). I was so proud of myself when I finally did it, and Arkham Asylum felt a lot like that: for the first time in ages (actually, probably since that victorious ride at age 9), I got through an SLC without my eyes half closed in a wince.

And sound? Usually I ride these things with one ear pressed into the side of the restraint, so everything sounds muffled, like being underwater. But here? None of that. We could truly appreciate the full auditory range of our various stages of hilarity, from snickers to full blown guffaws.

So yes, it pretty much is the earthquake that Superman’s saving you from next door.

 

And yes, a calcified turd can only be polished so much.

 

But you know what? I do not regret our second round of treatment. The KumbaK trains have turned something that used to make you cry tears of pain into something that makes you cry tears of delirious laughter. I know that sounds too strange to be true.

 

But I promise you there is a universe out there where this is real.

And if that’s still unnerving, then just look look up at the wheels and see how close they are to the track rails when you ride.

Some things never change :)

 

Here, however, things did begin to change. I should note that only two people were operating the SLC, and they made checking into that asylum as bureaucratic as if they worked at a real one. (You know how a real mental health facility would never admit you until you were rid of any potentially dangerous objects? At Arkham Asylum, dangerous objects included snaps sewn into the pockets of Richard’s shorts that required halting all operations until he could prove that something that was only detectable by staring intently at his junk region was not a weapon like a loose park map or tissue. It’s not just the ride itself that’ll make you laugh; trust me, you’ll need some humor to help you through those 7-8 minute dispatch cycles.)

At Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster, though, time seemed to regain its normal pace. The low capacity Mack mouse wound up having just a 15 minute queue. We shaved off even more time by gladly accepting the invitation from the girls ahead of us to take their place so their group wouldn’t be split between two cars, which was a kind offer not because it got us to the ride faster, but rather because one of the girls had a case of BO that could have competed with the entire middle school boys’ locker room. Sure, it meant I was in the back row and my view was obstructed, but I’m fairly sure I would have passed out anyway if I’d been downwind of her. Swings and roundabouts, really.

 

So Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster serves up one heck of a spooky sandwich.

 

No, really. Like, the queue is spooky.

 

And the cars are spooky.

 

The beginning of the ride is spooky. (I don’t have an on-ride photo, so I Googled the word “spooky.” I was not disappointed.)

 

 

 

The end of the ride is spooky (this was one of the most satisfying Google searches of my life).

But the middle is like some of the sandwiches I see at Tesco: like I can see the two slices of brown bread so I know it’s a sandwich, but what the hell is this prawn mayonnaise thing that’s going on between them?

 

But, unlike a Tesco sandwich, which rouses the few vestiges of USA pride I have left because I don’t know where the fuck you Irish people got the idea that “prawn mayonnaise” is an acceptable sandwich filling (goddamn I miss Wawa), the part between the spooky ends is agreeable.

It begins with a dark ride bit through a dungeon. There are skeletons, ghouls, monsters, a “ruh-roh!,” the usual cast of characters. Unfortunately, many of the effects were turned off for our rides, like the swinging blades on the ceiling. There is, however, a mirror toward the end of this section, so depending on which coaster enthusiasts are in your car, this could easily make up for the missing effects.

Up next is an elevator lift that does the sideways tilty thing, a backwards drop, a turntable to rotate the car to face forward, and then you pick up the storyline at the next logical place:

The disco.

 

Let’s use this photo called “Megan says ‘fuck it’ on taking night shots of Christmas lights” to represent what you see during the ride. Now imagine the Scooby Doo theme song is playing on repeat. Add some electric guitars. Throw in a little bit of fog. Lasers.

Guess what? You’ve got yourself a spooky coaster. Apparently.

Now, imagine all of that going on around you while riding a mostly trimless Mack mouse.

Jinkies!!!

This coaster was a feisty little badass. The hairpins weren’t trimmed and the drops were merciless. There wasn’t a nasty brake on the climb out of the drops, which made the turns that followed sharp and fierce—the kind of sharp and fierce that could be described with my favorite coaster enthusiast cliché of having “good laterals” or “nice laterals” but no, NO, I will not degrade myself like that. The darkness amplified the sense of speed; the audiovisual effects were as disorienting as they were delightfully campy. This mouse was not the tedious box tick that’s befallen so many of its brethren. It was the wild, aggressive, and fun ride it was meant to be—some badassery if there ever was some. Spooky badassery, in fact.

Well, okay, maybe it’s not that spooky…that is, unless you begin to wonder what Twilight Zone episode you’re in when a Mack mouse has a higher hourly throughput than the other coasters.

 

But hey, at least the other coasters had a higher hourly throughput than this.

 

Yeah. Oh well.

 

No fireworks today, I’m afraid.

 

Not that it came as a shock, since Movie World is one of those awesome places that publishes attraction maintenance closures on its website well in advance. Glad it was this one and not Superman.

 

But I have a big, purple, Mack-alicious feeling I’ll be back for it soon enough :)

 

Over in Winslow, the spooky Twilight Zone feeling began to dissipate.

 

(Kind of.)

 

That’s because we were about to learn that no matter where you go, you will always find reasons to question the worth of the human race.

 

Let’s take a quiz:

You are a ride operator on Wild West Falls directing guests to boats. A mother with two young boys is next in line. She is holding the smaller of the two, who is whimpering that he doesn’t want to get splashed. You ask the mother to set the boy down so you can measure his height. The mother snippily replies that the boy has already ridden this ride earlier today, implying that there is no reason to get him measured, but at least for your shift, you have not seen them come through this queue. What do you do?

a) Gently but firmly tell the mother you are required to measure the c