In recent years the two Busch Gardens parks have begun to offer a number of behind-the-scenes tours, which allow interested geeks guests to gain an unique insight into the running of a major theme park. We elected to join the Roller Coaster Insider tour to see what all the fuss was about. On arrival at the park some two hours prior to opening we were escorted to a parking area directly beside the front gate. Those familiar with the park will appreciate how much of a benefit this actually is, especially at the end of a long day! We were met by Josh and Gina, our cheery tour guides, who immediately told us how lucky we were with our chosen day; though there were fifteen people booked for the tour on Sunday, there were just two of us booked today.
Ticket formalities took only a few moments, and we were soon inside. It was utterly surreal to walk through a completely deserted entrance plaza, not least one without the usual theme park music playing. We had a whole five minutes of respite before the latter started up, with a bagpipe number that made me want to gag; does anyone actually like bagpipe music? The few moments of silence had made me realise how hideous the canned music must be for regular employees, though presumably they learn how to tune it out after a while.
The first stop on the tour was inside the maintenance bay for Loch Ness Monster, located directly underneath the ride station. My eye was immediately drawn to a substantial collection of spare vehicle components, far more than I'd have expected to see under normal circumstances. It turned out that most of them had been salvaged from the now defunct Python, whose trains are now being used as parts donors to keep this ride going.
Ride manufacturers lay down strict inspection schedules for their rides in order to ensure safety. One of the requirements specified by Arrow is an inspection of the chain dog mechanisms on the ride at a four hour interval. There are inspection hatches in the maintenance bay roof that allow these checks to be performed without closing the ride, and they happen quickly enough that guests sitting above are unlikely to be aware that they are taking place. The maintenance staff can also replace car wheels within five minutes, something which is occasionally needed during the day when one delaminates unexpectedly as pictured above; the loud clanking noise made by such a failure would be completely impossible for anyone to miss.
In the ride station itself we had a look at the operator's control panel, itself the flower of seventies technology. Not a lot has changed from the original even today, with the only major change being the addition of some sensors to ensure that the various station gates are locked closed. One interesting feature was a switch to select how many operators are in the station, as all those present need to have their pressure switches selected in order to dispatch a train.
The next stop was at Griffon, where we were able to ride to the top of the lift hill in the evacuation car. The view from the top of the structure was impressive, as were the various photo opportunities available. Enthusiastic photographers might have been slightly happier on the far side of the lift hill, but a good zoom lens would avoid the majority of the issue. Those doing this tour in future might want to bring their digital SLR!
Back at ground level, we were brought into a much more modern maintenance bay. The major difference was immediately visible, namely no track; the Griffon cars rest on their edges while in storage, meaning there is much more room to manoeuvre while working on them. We could immediately see the difference between B&M wheel bogies vs the classic Arrow designs, the most substantial being the way that they can articulate in all directions. It was surprising to see feel quite how heavy one of the main wheels for this ride is; apparently the entire car weights nine tonnes, and that's before you add in the thirty passengers.
The control panel for Griffon is a modern touch screen design that includes detailed information about every aspect of the ride, including a complete display of the status of all individual harnesses. Inside the operators booth was a collection of plaques commemorating individual operator teams who managed to achieve record numbers of ride dispatches over the course of a day. There were also several CCTV monitors showing the various locations on the ride, though some of the cameras were shaking quite badly; watching the feed for any length of time would likely cause severe nausea!
From there we went to the Alpengeist maintenance bay. There wasn't a huge amount to see there, given that all three trains were already on track, but we did see a sample checklist for the daily ride inspection. Apparently maintenance start their day at 2:00am, running checks for several hours before the ride can open to the public. Busch Gardens has an excellent safety record and is determined to keep things that way, and this paperwork is the only way to do it. We also saw a collection of replacement wheels with some rather surprising labelling; each wheel carries a best after date, as the wheel compound takes a certain amount of time to cure.
Next, we enjoyed two rides on Apollo's Chariot, one at the front, one at the back. Apparently tour groups are invariably divided as to which end of the train they prefer, and this morning was no different. One interesting feature of this ride which guests rarely notice is netting and water cannons pointing outwards at the base of the first drop, both of which are designed to discourage birds from flying into the path of an oncoming train.
Grover's Alpine Express (#1502) is not normally part of the coaster tour, but I asked if we could get in a quick lap and this was no problem. As our guide said, the ride is eighteen seconds of fun, and is quite lively for a family coaster. Larger people should be aware that the seats on this ride contain the dreaded shark fins, though those of normal body proportions shouldn't have any issues.
Our tour ended with a front row ride on Loch Ness Monster. We were entitled to a second, but we chose to give it a miss; a little Arrow goes a long way. Our guides handed us front of line passes for one additional ride on each coaster, and we went our separate ways.
The major new attraction at the park from my last visit is Europe in the Air, a simulator ride along the lines of the Soarin' rides at Disney, albeit without the hang-glider style seating which makes those rides what they are. Though an interesting attraction I found it a little nauseating, mostly because the projector seemed slightly out of focus. Additionally, the transitions in the video seemed a bit out of place, with a few seconds of blurred cloud covering hundred mile jumps between countries. The final attraction of the day was Curse of DarKastle, which I've reviewed previously. The only thing I'd add is that a back stage tour is available for this ride, which sounds utterly fascinating. Next time I'm in the area it'll definitely be on my hit list.