Nara Dreamland appears at first glance like a low budget version of the original Disneyland. It has a main street section full of shops, a castle in the centre, and a large artificial mountain with a coaster wrapped around the outside. There are even a number of cast members dressed up in colourful animal costumes, which cannot be fun given the average temperatures in Japan at this time of year.
Our first port of call was Aska (#635), widely regarded as the best wooden coaster in Japan. This isn't a massive endorsement when one considersthecompetition, though the description in the club trip book, loaded with airtime, had certainly whet my appetite. Throwing caution to the wind, I decided to disregard my usual policy and headed straight for the back row for the first ride. This can be a risky gamble at the best of times, and was made all the more so for a ride that nobody on our trip had yet tried. If the coaster gods were against me, I could end up seriously bruised for my trouble, or at least shaken enough that I might need to sit down for a bit.
Fortunately, I need not have worried. Regulars here will know that it takes a lot to impress me in a coaster these days, so factor that in when I say that Aska is very good indeed. Wooden coasters warm up during the day, so to find a ride filled with airtime on the first train of the morning says a lot about how fast it would run at night time. If I was designing the track myself I might have banked some of the corners, as the lateral forces are a little on the excessive side in places, but even taking that into account there is no doubt that the coaster is a top twenty ride, possibly even top ten.
Fans of Matterhorn Bobsleds will be well and truly familiar with the appearance of Bobsleigh (#636), a custom design from Sansei Yusoki. Unfortunately however the operational efficiency wasn't even close to what one might see at a Disney park; the single two-car train had a capacity of eight but more often than not went out with four, and the loading procedures bordered on the painful. After watching for a few minutes I concluded that the throughput was no higher than eighty guests per hour, a poor figure for a small park and a downright embarrassing figure for a large one.
With apologies to the easily offended, the next two coasters we rode were Screw Coaster (#637) and Fantasy Coaster (#638), which oddly enough were located side by side. George remarked that he might be tossed off the top of the lift hill on the screw coaster should his restraint pop up. Martin made a witty remark which is wholly inappropriate for publication. Nige just laughed as the jokes came down over him. Michael Jackson might have followed these up as we did with the Kids Coaster (#639), a Big Apple with a partially enclosed tent and, to our knowledge, no lawyers.
After a quick break for a cold drink, we went back over to Aska and began our usual policy of occupying any available seat, thereby avoiding the necessity of walking round the queue. I got in seven rides; two in the front row, one in the back, and the remainder in random seats. There was no rule against filming on ride, so I shot footage of the entire trip from the front seat, and for the first time in a while my camera behaved itself properly and caught the whole thing.
With about an hour left in the park, I thought I might as well see what else there was to ride, and stumbled across a shooting dark ride by the name of Gallantry. Unfortunately, this was not included in our unlimited ride ticket, and I elected not to pay for it. This brings me to a question; what is it about Japanese parks and unlimited ride tickets that do not, in fact, cover all the rides in the park? We experienced the same thing two days ago at Nasu Highland, where all but one of the dark rides had an additional charge. While I am not a fan of upcharge attractions as a rule, I do appreciate that some rides need them due both to extremely low capacity and the requirement for several ride operators. Skycoasters and bungee jumps fall into this category, for example. However, dark rides are typically capacity machines, and can normally be sped up to get more people through them should the queues demand it. There is absolutely no excuse for dark rides to require additional fees. All this serves to do is to stop people riding; I don't believe that any of our group tried this one out.
I walked through the Haunted Walkthrough, which was buried within the same mountain as Bobsleigh. Hearing the train rumble overhead whet my appetite for another go. As it turned out I rode twice, once in the back and once in the front, and on both occasions attempted some photography. In hindsight I wish I'd caught this one on video, but no doubt somebody else will have done that. My last ride of the morning was a repeat of Fantasy Coaster to shoot some pictures, as this had been impossible to do from ground level.
11th September 2005
We arrived at Hirakata Park where helpful staff handed us all tickets, which we were instructed to exchange inside the park for wristbands necessary for unlimited riding. No doubt there was an eminently sensible reason why they couldn't just hand out wristbands in the first place. Suggestions on a postcard please.
My immediate reaction to anything (not just a coaster) that has an adjective like fantastic in its name is a raised eyebrow accompanied by a generous helping of scepticism; after all it should surely be up to patrons to decide whether something is up to par or not. Fantastic Coaster Rowdy (#640) was a respectable enough junior coaster that tracked smoothly, but I'd suggest that a much fairer name would be Moderately Decent Coaster Rowdy. That said, it was arguably a better ride than Red Falcon (#641), a stereotypical example of Japanese coaster design that takes nearly three minutes to do nothing whatsoever, its gently sloping hills being utterly devoid of forces. For some bizarre reason the trains were fitted with entirely overhead restraints too; honestly the designers could probably have managed just fine with no restraints whatsoever.
The park has a standard model Reverchon mouse coaster that has, for reasons unclear, been altered to remove the spinning mechanism from the cars. The change is not for the better; the second half of Crazy Mouse (#642) is not much fun as the cars travel too fast to negotiate the turns without the rotation of the car to absorb part of the impact. The one positive for me was the location of the ride on a raised platform perhaps thirty feet into the air, making for better visuals than the norm.
With that done, our group provided considerable free entertainment for the locals as over a hundred of us shoehorned ourselves in sequence into Peekaboo Town (#643), a locally built family coaster that was similar in scale and design to the Taxi Jam rides in the Paramount parks. With that indignity out of the way we moved over to a coaster with what is quite possibly the strangest name of any I've come across to date. Elf (#644) is actually an acronym, which expands to Episode of Little Fairies. I'd like to see the rest of the series; this was a great ride, if perhaps secondary to Aska in overall quality.
At this point, with the coasters done, it was time to explore the park. My first stop was at the Pachanga rapids, where for some bizarre reason I was given a six-seat boat of my own despite the group in front of me containing five. Perhaps the locals did not want to share a boat with a tall foreigner? Perhaps the group of four in the boat behind me didn't either? Or maybe the park just loaded one group into each boat regardless? Whatever the case, my off balanced boat resulted in a heavy wave going over the seat I was occupying, thoroughly drenching me. On the positive side, it was sufficiently warm that I was already drying off by the time I got back to the station.
Earlier this year, I encountered an unusual variation on dodgems in Hungary. Hirakata Park is home to another obscure mutation of the genre, namely dodgems with cannons attached. Each car has a target on its back, which other players are supposed to hit with the shots fired from their cannon. For obvious reasons, the vehicles are fitted with a cage over the top to prevent nasty accidents, and the speed of the ride is relatively slow. Unfortunately, someone else had control of the steering in my vehicle, and as far as I could tell I completely failed to hit anything with my cannon.
Next came a dark ride which was new to the park in 2004, though visitors could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Gnome Musical featured a number of animatronic puppets singing children's songs in Japanese, though the standard of presentation fell far short of what has come to expect of rides of this type. I was rather more impressed by Laser Battle, a Senyo-built shooting ride. American firm Sally Corporation has a virtual monopoly on rides of this type in the western world, and it would seem from this trip that they've been thoroughly outclassed in the Japanese market. As a frequent patron of both manufacturers I'm of the view that the Senyo models are far superior; it'd be nice to see some of them exported.
After a quick ride on the Giant Drop Meteo, I made my way over to another unique attraction, the Japanese Horror House. This might have been any standard dark ride other than one unique twist, namely individual headphones for all riders. This allowed sound effects which would never be possible in a traditional attraction, such as whispers in your ear, and loud sounds in time with events.
I spent my remaining time on three of the smaller attractions. First up was the Final Frost ice house, a very small model which nevertheless cooled me down very effectively. Second up, the Senyo-built Log Flume, with a seatbelt round my knees which only served to irritate me and would not have held me in even under any circumstances. I have never seen a log flume with a seatbelt before, and as it was I removed this one as soon as I was out of the station. Finally, before leaving, I hit the Treasure Hunter attraction, which would probably have made more sense to me if I could have understood the Japanese instructions!
11th September 2005
After arrival at the hotel, I found myself assimilated into a large group heading down to Festivalgate to ride Delphis. Since I was there anyway I decided to ride it again, and came away just as unimpressed as last time. On this occasion, most of us decided to try the Shooting Dark Ride, another Senyo model, which was disappointingly average; most of the targets were fixed models with only the smallest amount of animatronic movement. It was worth going out, however, for the chance to join a group in a traditional local restaurant. The salarymen within were no doubt surprised at the sight of five tall gaijin walking in at 10:00pm, but the staff took our visit in their stride and delivered us a superb (if completely unidentifiable) meal.