mmcirvin: (Default)
mmcirvin ([personal profile] mmcirvin) wrote2013-10-14 10:09 pm

Some rides at Walt Disney World

While I'm too averse to physical punishment to be one of these people who can ride roller coasters all day long, I am interested in them. This summer I didn't get to ride any new-to-me coasters; the last amusement park I went to for the first time was Lake Compounce last year.

Over the long weekend, though, we went to Walt Disney World in Florida. It was actually my first time there, and also, I think, Sam's (though she'd been to Disneyland in California). My childhood had been Disney-park-free, so this stuff was new to me.

WDW has four large theme parks, of which we visited three (Animal Kingdom, The Magic Kingdom, and EPCOT; we left off Hollywood Studios, the site of the Aerosmith-themed Rockin' Roller Coaster, which I'd like to ride someday). Disney's parks are not primarily about thrill rides, but Animal Kingdom and The Magic Kingdom have lavishly themed coasters of note, and EPCOT has a difficult-to-classify ride with some coaster aspects. Inevitably, I didn't ride all the ones I wanted to (which was all of them*), but I had a lot of fun.

We went to Disney's Animal Kingdom, a combination theme park and open-air safari/zoo attraction, on the first day. It's a great place, better than its reputation in my opinion; it also has the biggest, most elaborate and highest-thrill ride of the lot, Expedition Everest. In what you may detect as a running theme with Disney coasters, this thing winds in and around a fake mountain, this one inhabited by a gigantic yeti; and it makes a lot of use of dark tunnels. There's a rudimentary story of sorts, in which a train in the Himalayas gets waylaid by the yeti ripping up the tracks. In the station there's even steam apparently rising from the trains as you get on. The ride pulls a number of illusionary tricks like that, most of which work.

Probably the cleverest thing it does is to switch out the tracks twice while you're not looking, as the train goes backward and forward. It has an unusual two-part lift hill, after which it swoops through a short tunnel, then stops at an apparent precipice where someone or something has left the tracks as a broken ruin. It then goes into a fast drop in reverse, on a different track that plunges into complete darkness. When it stops again, my personal favorite bit happens: you see a short, masterfully done animation projected on a cave wall, showing the shadow of the yeti ripping up the tracks behind you. Then the train goes forward again, on yet another track leading to the rest of the ride.

At the climax it plunges forward through the mountain again, to the ride's money shot, the yeti's in-person appearance... and this is the moment where Expedition Everest falls down a bit, not wholly by design but by engineering mishap.

See, the yeti is kind of broken. What it was supposed to do was reach out a ginormous animatronic arm that threatens to grab the coaster train. But the tremendous tracked armature that was supposed to accomplish this apparently has structural problems, and there's no way to fix it without taking apart the whole mountain! So instead the yeti is just lit up intermittently with strobe lights, probably on the classic horror-movie theory that you can make the monster scarier by not showing it very much. Unfortunately, I think they overdid the intermittency a bit. Now, admittedly, my vision is a little impaired when I ride big coasters because I take my glasses off. But I can usually make out yeti-sized objects pretty clearly, and when gazing upon the allegedly terrifying visage of Expedition Everest's yeti, I'm afraid it failed to even register as some kind of monster. They probably need to fire the strobe a few more times at least, or use a different lighting effect.

In any event, this is still a really good coaster. Its thrill level is not up to the level of something like, say, Boulder Dash, but it's enough to scare the bejesus out of your average park-goer, and it is a beautiful ride full of the little theming details you expect from Disney.

On the second day, we went to WDW's first and most iconic park, the Magic Kingdom, which, it probably goes without saying, easily outclassed every other amusement park I've ever seen. The Magic Kingdom has three coasters: the family mine-train Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, an airplane-themed kiddie coaster called the Barnstormer, and the famously peculiar dark coaster, Space Mountain. A fourth, the really fancy-looking Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, is under construction in Fantasyland.

Of these, the only one I actually managed to ride was Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which is sort of the apotheosis of the family "mine train" coaster, winding through a rocky red Western landscape filled with old-timey mining bric-a-brac. For some reason, maybe because of the Arrow Dynamics instances like Hersheypark's Trailblazer, in the 1970s this kind of theming became associated with not-too-scary family coasters that do a lot of twisting and dipping. Disney's is a long one with multiple lift hills, and they went all out with the Western theming. The first lift hill is inside the mine, with picturesque stalactites and water effects. Recently this ride went through a major renovation, in which all the fake railroad ties were replaced among other things, so it looks great.

My daughter immediately declared this her favorite ride ever, a designation that it would enjoy for one day. Since we were staying at one of the WDW resorts, we got to select three "Fastpass+" slots in advance through a website to skip the queue (anyone can get Fastpasses for free at the park itself, but the passes themselves go fast). Big Thunder Mountain was our first one, not long after opening, but as it turned out we needn't have bothered; the line at that point was quite short and we went around for another go.

The second coaster we were going to ride was the kiddie coaster, the Barnstormer, which is apparently the last vestige of the old Mickey's Toontown area that was torn out as part of the Fantasyland expansion. Now it's associated with the more Dumbo-themed Storybook Circus zone. My daughter rode this with some other family members and pronounced it disappointing after Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (it's very short).

I didn't ride the Barnstormer, though, because by the time we got there, I had to head over to our Fastpass slot at Space Mountain. Unfortunately, when we got there, Space Mountain was not operating. When this happens, they let you use the freed Fastpass anywhere you like at your leisure, which was probably for the best because most of my companions actually did not want to ride Space Mountain. I never did get around to riding it, because we spent the pass on other stuff (I went with Sam and Jorie to the extremely clever "Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor", a kind of real-time CGI improv puppet show) and my prospective riding companion eventually went back to the hotel.

But something cool that was Space Mountain-related happened anyway. We were stuck for something to do at the moment, and decided to go on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, an odd little ride that, despite its name, actually is not a means of transit at all; it just takes you on a little circuit of the Tomorrowland area in a vaguely futuristic open car. At one point, the PeopleMover goes through the interior of Space Mountain, where you usually can't actually see anything; you just see a few tiny lights and hear people screaming. But since the ride was being repaired, the interior lights were on and we could see the confusion of twisty tracks and scaffolding inside! I'd heard of this as a thing that sometimes happened, but it never occurred to me that I'd see it with my own eyes.

Our third day was at EPCOT, the weird park that is sort of a perpetual 1980s-vintage World's Fair, where we fortunately completely missed the drunk guy beating people with a pipe in a backstage area.

EPCOT only has a couple of what might be characterized as thrill rides, but the one we went on, the GM-sponsored (now Chevrolet-branded) Test Track, is a doozy. It's not a roller coaster per se, but it culminates in a fast circuit around a sort of banked slot-car track.

The ride recently got a complete makeover, and the theming has changed. It used to be set in a realistic-looking imitation of an automobile test facility, in which your car went through various testing ordeals, then shot around the outside track after a fakeout crash-barrier test.

Now it's higher-concept and has an interesting quasi-game element, though it's perhaps less visually interesting. The pre-show is now an activity in which you "design" your own car on a large touchscreen. Then you ride through a sort of Tron-like virtual-world environment while video screens mounted at various positions score how the car design you made would do at the various challenges. (The design is attached to you via the RFID cards and/or wristbands that you use for admission to the park.)

The merits of the old vs. new visuals seem to be a matter of some controversy. I think the actual car motions are pretty much unchanged; there are some surprising jolts and accelerations in this bit, especially when the car swerves to avoid a semi. Anyway, as before, at the end of the ride the car seems to be heading for a wall, then comes the bit you've been waiting for, as the car shoots around the outside track at a fairly high speed. The acceleration on the straightaway and the banked turns are quite thrilling; the car actually gets up to highway speeds, faster than many large roller coasters.

At the end, your car gets an overall score, and there's a big display showing the winning design for the day. The post-ride activities are particularly fun for kids: you can assemble a commercial to advertise your virtual Chevy, and also drive it around a big floor display in a simple multi-player race game. There's also another touchscreen kiosk where you can remake your car if you just want to fiddle with the design interface some more (my kid naturally gravitated to this).

Anyway, Test Track immediately displaced Big Thunder Mountain as her favorite ride of all time. She kept begging to go back, at times when the standby line was close to two hours and a Fastpass slot wouldn't be open until way too late. She announced that she wanted to just ride Test Track all day long, something that I think would be a bit beyond my capabilities.

*Except Primeval Whirl at Animal Kingdom. Spinning coasters are not a thing I have ever regarded as a good idea.