Saturday, June 13, 2015

A First-Timer's Visit to the Food, Fun + Rides of Carowinds

Welcome to Carowinds!
There's a short list of major parks (okay well to be honest not as short as I would like) that my travels haven't take me to yet, and up until a few weeks ago Carowinds was near the top of it.  The park that saddles the border between North and South Carolina had eluded me, but with the park in the middle of an unprecedented expansion, including one huge new coaster, this was the perfect time to make the trip.

The Carolina Boardwalk themed area.
How's this for park character?  Beautiful area.
Sadly the park isn't by any means around the corner from me, but that was all the more reason to spend a couple days at Carowinds to really get to know it.  Upon arrival I immediately noticed how pretty much of the park is.  Carowinds first opened in 1973, the creation of local businessman E. Pat Hall.  The park originally occupied 73 acres of land, but has expanded greatly in the decades since.  The name Carowinds was originally meant to reflect the winds that blew between the two states, uniting them as one.

Carowinds has several coasters for families, like Ricochet.
Many sections of the park easily reflect the fact that they've been around for over 40 years, with tall shade trees grown in, creating a peaceful atmosphere.  The park's layout could be described as a large figure eight, of course with some extra pathways here and there - even without a map it became easy to navigate before long.  As a plus, Fury 325 - if you remember it was near the entrance - serves as a marker that can't be ignored from anywhere on property!

Classic Arrow Dynamics Designed Coaster
As the years went by the park's ownership changed several times, though Carowinds continued to grow and see new additions.  As the park grew, so did both its attendance and revenues, not to mention its fan base.  The park's next big chapter occurred in 1993 when it became known as Paramount's Carowinds, part of a larger chain of parks owned and operated by Viacom for many years.  The change in ownership led to a different growth pattern for the park, one that focused on adding themed elements that reflected the parent company's popular brands.  These included Wayne's World, Top Gun, Drop Zone and more.

Every park should have a shooter dark ride.
Any park with an old Arrow minetrain gets a gold star from me.
Luckily for the park most of the theming that was added during the Paramount years didn't damage the 'core' of the park, only adding to it.  That made things easy when Cedar Fair purchased the Paramount parks in 2006 - all the movie and TV show theming was quickly removed.  That meant renaming both rides and some entire themed sections, but in doing such Carowinds regained a bit of its history as it returned to a theme park that's all about the Carolinas.

Good food, great entertainment.
Today we find a Carowinds that is in the middle of a giant expansion - announced as lasting over three years and representing a $50 million investment by Cedar Fair.  In order to support what is hoped to be a larger attendance base, the park has invested in both marketable new rides and attractions but also necessary infrastructure.  That includes Harmony Hall, seen above, a giant quick service meal outlet with an amazing amount of seating, live entertainment and as a plus - air-conditioning.

Nighthawk at dusk.
The park also needed to get all those additional guests into the park more easily, so they totally gutted the original North Gate for 2015.  The addition included sleek and modern looking entrance gates, ticket sales, guest services and more.  Parking changes were also completed, including heavy changes to the park's entrance road to handle more vehicles, along with a new 900 spot parking lot.  The new entrance has a totally different feel than the old, but it's also incorporated with Fury 325 in such a way that it feels impressive from start to finish.

Tasty treats!
New special events and promotions are also being employed at Carowinds, creating even more reasons to drop by and visit.  Luckily when we were at the park the brand new Taste Of The Carolinas food festival was still going on, which meant we were able to partake in various treats.

The park has set up booths, like the one seen above, in two areas of the park for the event.  Each booth represents a different region of the Carolinas, and offers food choices that reflect that area.  The park offers re-loadable cards that can be used at the different stands, and all the items are à la carte so you can try just what you want.

There is a bit of something for even the choosiest eaters.  Two of our favorites were the Jalapeno Pimento Cheese Balls with Cranberry Jelly at the Upstate South Carolina Region stand, and the Pecan Cinnamon Bread Pudding with Cream Cheese Icing at the Asheville Montains stand.  Yum.

Wanna be on TV?
Taste Of The Carolinas also features several special events, including ice carving and even vegetable carving.  Several chef appearances and cooking demonstrations took place inside Harmony Hall, and live bands appear both inside and outside on the facility's patio area.  The day we visited we were treated to being able to watch a live taping of Flip My Food with Chef Jeff.

The event was really well done, you can tell plenty of thought and planning went into making sure it was the best it could be.  I hope it was a success for the park and returns again in future years.

Not my type of ride, but people love it!
Located in the sleepy Carolina Showplace section of the park is another new thrill for 2015, the Sling Shot.  The ride launches two people up to 300 feet above the park in a tiny capsule at over 60 miles per hour.  The ride has an extra fee above park admission, but that didn't stop visitors from lining up to take a ride when we were at the park.  Riders are filmed while on Sling Shot as well, creating some pretty hysterical footage.

You can watch the flow of people gravitate toward the ride.
Naturally you can't cover Carowinds in 2015 without mentioning Fury 325, the enormous new coaster that's attracting guests and media coverage from all over the Country.   Fury 325 gets its name from the fact that the ride stands 325 feet tall, making it noticeable from anywhere in the park and the greater area that surrounds it.  After being in the park for a couple days, I picked up that nearly all guests just refer to the ride as "Fury," and believe me everyone was talking about it!

Love this view from the new entrance!
As mentioned earlier, the brand new entrance that was built for Carowinds is bisected by Fury 325, which means that there are about a thousand great photo locations adjacent to the coaster.  If the heavens give you a little blue sky and some puffy clouds things get even better for amateur photographers like myself!

Fury 325 is pretty at all times of the day.
Carowinds needed a big statement ride to really kick off their multi-year expansion, and boy did they deliver with Fury 325.  Many guests to the park probably felt that Intimidator would be the tallest Carowinds coaster for quite some time, and honestly I may have agreed.  That ride stands 232 feet tall and has an impressive presence in the park, but Fury adds another hundred-plus feet onto that height and has forever changed the park - for the better of course.

Zooming along...
The design of Fury 325 included a focus on height (obviously) as well as the sensation of speed - 95 miles per hour to be specific.  That second point is what I expected from the ride, but not to the degree in which it was delivered.  I knew for a while I would be going to the park, so I generally avoided off-ride footage of Fury 325 to keep some things a surprise.  Walking up to the park and seeing the train absolutely scream around the first two thirds of the course was surprising, almost shocking really.  Above is the first turn on the ride, nearly 200 feet above the ground, and the train soars through it so much faster than I imagined.  I really like the feeling of speed on roller coasters, so taking this all in upon arriving at the park was a good, no great surprise.

You can feel the energy of this part of the park.
I'm not going to give a play by play of the entire Fury 325 experience, but I will confirm that the back left seat is a real treat.  There are at least three moments of surprisingly strong air-time to be found back there, and being pulled over the top of the lift and out of your seat for that plunge is a bit like nirvana.  The design of the ride is also especially easy on the eye, with the track and supports nicely blending in with the sky.  At night, and seen above, the green accent lighting really makes the ride stand out - as if it didn't already!

A lucky day for this family!
While at the park I was by chance able to be on hand for the presentation of the 325,000th rider on Fury 325, seen above holding the sign.  Their family got a great Fury themed goodie bad and some excellent bragging rights.  Since this photo was taken a few weeks ago, the ride has probably nearly doubled that count by now.

In short, I think the ride is a home run, no doubt, and should be on anyone's must-visit-list who appreciates the raw speed of a large ride!

Seriously intense B&M coaster.
Aside from Fury 325, Carowinds offers plenty of other rides and attractions as well, including 12 additional roller coasters.  I previously mentioned Intimidator as a stand out ride, but also seen above is Afterburn, a B&M inverted ride, which sorta knocked my socks off.  I had read plenty of times that the coaster is above average in the intensity category and I will certainly agree with that!  Carowinds offers a wide variety of coasters, with everything from a wild mouse, flying ride, classic Arrow minetrain and looper, stand-up and even three wooden rides.

WindSeeker towers above Flying Ace Aerial Chase
There's also plenty of non-coaster attractions at the park as well.  My group really enjoyed both the competitive fun and air-conditioning of Boo Basters!, and another bonus is a set of really excellent Flying Scooters hidden in Planet Snoopy.  WindSeeker gives a nice view of the park from above, and the soon-to-be reopened observation tower will have cameras clicking like crazy, I'm sure.  We were there before it opened for the year, but Carowinds also offers an entire water park - Boomerang Bay - under the general admission ticket.

Time to say good bye...
With so much fun already in place, it's almost hard to believe that Carowinds plans on adding even more in the future - but that's exactly what's going to happen.  The park recently announced that Thunder Road will be retired this Summer in order to make way for a "splashy" new addition.  It looks like the water park may be the focus of the next round of construction, something that will be much appreciated in the warm Carolina sun. 

I can't wait to watch this park grow even more and see what's coming next!  To learn more or plan your own trip, head over to Carowinds' website.