Monday, June 22, 2009

Instant Theme Park: Just Add Quarry (Part 1)

Editor's Note: This post is the first in a three-part series covering my recent visit to Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Be sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3 as well!

Good trip reports are like fine wines: They just get better with age. Based on a series of highly scientific calculations, I determined that a Six Flags Fiesta Texas TR reaches its peak around the 3.5 week mark. So without further ado, I present to you the perfectly aged second segment of my San Antonio adventures.

Given the amount of time I had to take this photo, it should have been museum quality.

I waited many long years for the opportunity to visit Six Flags Fiesta Texas. The parking lot attendants intuitively sensed this and said, "Eh, what's another 15 minutes?" I kid you not, the "parking lot ride" was our longest wait of the day. Shocked and flustered, this converted Six Flags fangirl began questioning everything from God to the theory of relativity. How could this be?? I immediately sought solace in Twitter, for park frustrations are that much more bearable when shared with my NPN friends.

In the wake of the parking ordeal, the entrance plaza was a sight for sore eyes! A gentle, placating, empty sight...Where were all the people?? I had expected light attendance on the day of our visit, given that it was a Thursday in late May. [Did I just admit how late this TR is? DOH!] But the park was almost eerily uncrowded. It kind of depressed me.

Crowds or not, I have a system and I was sticking to it so we headed directly for the back of the park. On our way we passed a group of suits, but they didn't talk to us. Apparently they didn't realize who I was, nor did they realize that I was about to single-handedly wipe out a significant chunk of Six Flags' debt through my lavish in-park spending. [Sadly, not quite enough.] The former point may not be worth much, but surely the latter would have merited at least a handshake.

After discovering that Fiesta Bay Boardwalk would be opening late, we found ourselves in Rockville, face-to-face with the flashiest tower ride known to mankind: Scream. We had the ride all to ourselves! This was our first encounter with Fiesta Texas ride ops, and it set the tone for a standard of friendliness and helpfulness the likes of which I haven't seen at too many other parks. The man at the controls was all smiles as he issued the top secret combination of button pushes, lever pulls, and magic words that would send us shooting up to kiss the Texas sky.

Next up was Poltergeist. Another empty queue! "You're our first riders of the day!" one of the ride ops told us jovially. Two rides all to ourselves and friendly employees? I felt like a rock star.

This coaster surprised me. After the way its enclosed cousin at Kings Island jerked me around earlier this year, I was prepared for the worst. But Poltergeist delivered an amazingly smooth ride, allowing me to walk away with my rock star persona (and my spinal column) firmly intact.

Rockville High Theatre

My obsession with visiting Six Flags Fiesta Texas had little to do with their ride line-up, although they do have a nice mix of attractions. For me, the fascination was purely visual. Every photo of this park I had ever seen was drop-dead gorgeous and impossibly charming.

The charm factor is directly attributable to Fiesta Texas's elaborate theming. Rockville, for example, is a throwback to the 1950s. It's anchored around a streetscape that is so realistic, you almost forget you're in the middle of an amusement park. It even has functional traffic lights! At the end of this street is the Rockville High Theatre, an impressive entertainment venue where the park's popular "Rockin' at Rockville High" and "Groovin' at Rockville High" musical productions are staged.

At this point you're probably wondering (and rightfully so) how rides like Scream and Poltergeist fit into this old school Americana motif. In a nutshell, they don't. Remember that much publicized capital spending spree that Premier went on shortly after purchasing Six Flags? You know, the one that landed current day Six Flags in bankruptcy? Many of Fiesta Texas's rides were a product of that insanity.

Scream and Poltergeist, for instance, were two of fifteen new rides installed at Fiesta Texas in 1999. Yes, you read that correctly: FIFTEEN NEW RIDES IN ONE YEAR! (Oh, and by the way that package included multiple roller coasters.) When you're adding attractions at that rate, obviously theming is not your number one priority. Great rides, all of them--but what a disgrace to the original owners' vision for this park. It makes you appreciate what original theming is left even more.

As we wandered the streets of Rockville, my husband remarked that he needed an ATM. As if on cue, we were immediately approached by yet another uber friendly park employee who asked if we needed help finding something. By this point I was becoming suspicious that some marketing exec had issued a frantic distress signal alerting all employees that there was a crazed enthusiast blogger loose in the park, tweeting obscenities about how long it took to get into the parking lot, and that everyone should be on their best behavior. (I have a very overactive imagination.)

Rock star? You betcha.

Time to switch gears. (And languages!) Spassburg is Fiesta Texas's tribute to Germany, although this area of the park seems to have lost much of its identity to popular culture in recent years.

Papa John's: A German delicacy

Some details of Spassburg remain true, such as the pavers which line the midway and the icon that is Sangerfest Halle, a food court which actually does serve up German specialties in addition to the more traditional American and Mexican fare.

Despite its "looney" storyline, even Bugs' White Water Rapids blends into Spassburg nicely. Its towering castle facade, which doubles as a queue, features scenes from a popular Bugs Bunny cartoon which continues to play out along the course of the ride. Castles, dragons, and knights in shining armor? Yeah, that works.

Bugs' White Water Rapids is a bit eccentric as far as flumes go. In addition to the fact that it's just plain odd to refer to a log flume as "white water rapids", this non-traditional flume features four-bench, eight-seater "logs" and chain lifts. It's small but quaint, and dumps more than a little water on the laps of the people sitting in the front seat. (Trust me.)

I would have expected this queue to be full on a hot Texas day, but it was yet another walk-on! In fact, the ride op even offered to let us stay in our log and go for another round. [Boy, those suits must have felt really guilty for not saying hello to us earlier.]

Once you pass beyond Bugs' lair, "Willkommen" quickly turns into "Wigglekommen". New for 2009, a small area has been carved out of Spassburg and transformed into Wiggles World. As part of the transition, the Vekoma junior coaster formerly known as Der Rollschuhcoaster has taken on the notably less German title "Romp Bomp A Stomp". (It's catchy, don't get me wrong! Just...not very German.)

Now before y'all go accusing me of being a Wiggles hater, I think it's great that Six Flags added a special themed area for the kids. Really, I do! (Truth be told, I have never seen the Wiggles show...Is it a show?) It's just unfortunate that it came at the expense of slicing Spassburg in half.

Then again, you'd be hard-pressed to find any semblance of Germany in the other half of Spassburg anyway. Rides which once boasted colorful ethnic names such as Die Fledermaus and Steingasse have been rebranded as Whirligig and Fender Bender. Sigh...How pedestrian. It's almost as if this area of the park has already seceded from Spassburg and is simply waiting on Mr. Six to make it official.

Faster than a speeding bratwurst

But all is not lost, my friends! The Spassburg annex has a coaster. And it's a big one.

Superman: Krypton Coaster affords us our first glance at Six Flags Fiesta Texas's signature quarry walls. Arguably the most stunning natural feature of any theme park in the country, the rock quarry provides an incomparable backdrop for many of the park's rides, including the Man of Steel's spawn.

At the risk of swinging the vote in this month's poll, I must pause to give this coaster its due props. In terms of the ride experience itself, Superman: Krypton Coaster is very much what you would expect from any B&M floorless, and many of its elements are de rigueur. But when you throw a big honking wall of rock into the mix, you're bound to end up with something extra special. Both the first and second drop come swooping off that massive cliff, and it is an experience like none other. Even the rest of the course, which dances along the quarry floor, provides a heightened experience due to its mere proximity to that massive wall of rock.

Der cobra roll

The only thing that could have made this ride better is some good ol' fashioned German theming. (We are still in Spassburg. Remember?) Seriously, Six Flags: Would it have been so hard to at least name it Superman: Der Krypton Coaster? I'm just sayin'.

Judging from the fact that we actually had to wait in line for Superman (horrors!!), I'd say it's one of the most popular--if not the most popular--rides at Fiesta Texas. Of course, the wait also could have been due to the fact that they were only running one train and the dispatch times were atrocious. Imagine: One of the highest capacity rides at the park had the lowest throughput! Now that takes talent. Sadly, this also hampered my ability to get photos of the ride in action. My patience only stretches so far, people! (I actually got my best shots from the train, which ran virtually its entire course without our seeing hide nor hair of the Man of Steel.)

With that, I conclude both our tour of the identity crisis that is Spassburg and Part 1 of this very--ahem, fashionably--late TR. How does that line go again? Oh yeah: "Baby, please. You're making a German spectacle of yourself!" Indeed. Next we leave Europe behind and head to Mexico!