Nagashima Spa Land

23rd October 2015

In the planning stages of our Japan trip it was necessary to cut out quite a few of my planned stops in order to stay within a two week holiday window. Most of the big parks were dropped in favour of obscure locations, but I felt that the War Office should have a chance to tick off at least a few of the country's most famous coasters. One of the options was to visit Fuji-Q Highland, but that was quickly ruled out, major rides notwithstanding, as I wanted to actually enjoy myself. It seemed like an altogether better plan to spend a day at Nagashima Spa Land, sometimes referred to by enthusiasts as the Cedar Point of Japan.

The park has a dedicated bus service from nearby Kuwana Station, and it dropped us at the side entrance about five minutes before the scheduled opening. I used the waiting time to look at the map, and immediately noticed the addition of a huge new children's section in the space that was once home to Corkscrew and Ultra Twister. My immediate thought was that they might have been retired, but I need not have worried; both had been relocated to the far side of the park, consolidating almost all of the adult coasters into one area. In researching this report I asked Reddit for other examples of coasters relocated within a park in recent years, and the group came up with four; Achterbahn, Drako, Space Coaster, and Titanide. To the best of my knowledge no park has ever moved two coasters at the same time before.

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We had no particular batting order in mind for our day, and thus decided to begin with the coaster closest to the entrance. The singular Children Coaster is now the oldest known example of the medium-sized Zierer Tivoli in its original location, with an impressive three decades of continuous service in a park that operates all year round. The tyre drive lift on this unit had half the usual number of motors, but they were more than sufficient to lift a train devoted to two slightly embarrassed western tourists. It was interesting to note an almost complete absence of the usual whirring noise inherent to this type of ride, suggesting that the track might have been upgraded with sound deadening material.

The centrepiece of the new family section is Peter Rabbit Coaster, a brightly coloured powered ride from Hoei Sangyo with a beautifully themed train and an elongated single helix layout. Physically the ride looks great, but the on-board experience suffers badly from the maximum speed of the train, which today wasn't much beyond a fast walking pace. It was a timely reminder of why I've chosen not to include powered rides in my coaster count; though the track had changes of elevation, crossing it felt no different to riding a motorised monorail, or for preference, a dark ride without the dark bits. (Readers, it's your list, count what you like, but don't get annoyed when some of us snigger at you.)

Our next stop was at Wild Mouse, where as with my previous visits the left hand side track was closed. The lift hill looked to be in operational condition, making me suspect that the park alternates operation of the two tracks on off-peak days, and in support of that theory a sizeable number of enthusiasts have logged it over the years. The right hand side began well enough, with the car rolling through the first two block sections without being trimmed, but the third brake stopped us absolutely dead, the lap bar delivering an aggressive punch to the stomach. Similarly harsh braking at each subsequent block rendered the rest of the layout dull, a shame really given what a Mack mouse is usually capable of.

Eight years ago I bought a last minute flight in order to score a few laps on Steel Dragon 2000, once the world's tallest coaster. My trip report at the time described the ride as respectable but somewhat understated, thanks to limited forces and overly enclosed rolling stock. In early 2013 it became apparent that the original trains had been replaced with B&M models, potentially representing an enormous upgrade, but there was a catch; the higher riding position had brought with it a 185cm height limit, perfectly adequate for the local market but a major embuggerance for foreign tourists. It wasn't at all clear that I'd still be able to ride, and given that, it seemed wise to temper my enthusiasm. I maintained my stoicism until it became apparent that the staff were not checking heights today.

During the boarding process I found myself contemplating the arbitrary nature of a maximum total height on a coaster with seats, given that people have different body shapes. When I sat into the train my head didn't quite reach the top of the seatback, yet a smaller Japanese man seated in the row in front of me was several centimetres above it. Similarly, a short person with long arms could potentially find themselves able to reach outside of the ride clearance envelope. I'd like to see a ride manufacturer take the lead in designing a modern test seat that uses laser measuring systems to determine conclusively whether someone can safely ride or not; after all, one presumes that park management would prefer to minimise the number of people turned away from their signature attraction.

At any rate, the open seating on the new trains results in a definite feeling of vulnerability during the inordinately slow climb to the top of the ninety-seven meter lift hill, as aided by two separate chain lift mechanisms. The view from the apex is amazing, and the first drop is wonderful. However, things go downhill from that point, pun intended; as the train accelerates it begins to suffer from severe vibration that is not at all pleasant at speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour. The helix next to the car park thus became an endurance exercise rather than the thrill that the designers would have intended. A mid-course brake trimmed off some speed, making the bunny hops back to the station pleasant enough, but the overall experience just wasn't what it should have been. The front row might well have been smoother, but I don't have the data to comment on that as an assigned seating policy meant that we never made it further forward than the fourth car despite multiple laps at different points in the day.

The newest addition to the park is Acrobat (#2185), a flying coaster best known to western readers as Manta from SeaWorld Orlando. It has been installed in an area that was once part of the car park, but the only way to see that now is to look at old satellite imagery; management have invested heavily in landscaping (unlike a certain well-known American park!) and the result is quite simply magnificent; the new ride fits so beautifully into its surroundings that the average punter would never realise that it was an off-the-shelf design.

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(Images courtesy of Google Earth, Europa Technologies)

The ride doesn't have an on-board photo system. Instead, queuing guests are invited to climb into one of two test cars mounted against a green screen and scream enthusiastically while staff members with SLR cameras take the perfect artificial action shot. The finished images are then professionally printed and mounted on a poster board at the ride exit where they can be purchased for a nominal fee. It felt almost churlish to eschew this facility, but we had no intention of investing in the end product, so presumably our actions saved the park a few yen in print and media costs.

Japanese ride operations tend to favour good manners and repeated safety announcements over raw throughput, and that remains the case even on slow loading rides such as flying coasters. Acrobat has a double station which aids things somewhat, but even still, the dispatch interval for our visit was still of the order of one train every five minutes. Relatively light crowds on a Friday in October kept the total wait to around thirty minutes, but only a tiny fraction of the available cattle grid was in use; those visiting on weekends or during the summer would do well to plan accordingly. Paid priority tickets are available on busy days; those seeking to marathon should definitely consider them.

The normally reserved locals break out into screams of delight as fully loaded trains assume the flying position and ease gently out of the station onto the forty-three metre lift hill. Passengers on the left hand side have a good view of the seventy-seven metre second drop (!) of Steel Dragon 2000, while those on the right look down upon car park and sideways to the nearby Isewangan Expressway. At the apex, the train enters a smooth curved drop that goes within about ten feet of a grass area below, before climbing into the top of a love-it-or-hate-it (there's no middle ground!) pretzel loop, which as with similar rides elsewhere delivers several seconds of sustained forces that pin riders in to their seats.

A gentle turn, an inline twist, and a corkscrew lead to a block brake section, but fortunately this is only there for emergencies; in normal operation the train cruises through it with no slow-down at all. Passengers are then treated to a curved descent over a lake, where a water splash effect, barely perceptible from on board, provides an excellent photo opportunity for the waiting Japparazi, who invariably seem to carry enough camera equipment (each) to furnish a medium sized warehouse. A turn, another inline twist, and a final low pass leads to the end brake and a short journey back to the station.

The new ride is quite simply terrific, and is in my not so humble opinion the best coaster in the park, well up there with the very best coasters in Japan. It has already been upstaged somewhat by the custom flying coaster going into Universal Studios, but until that ride opens it constitutes something genuinely unique for the local market.

Acrobat

We were brought back to earth with a clatter (quite literally) by the Bobkart, a double tracked installation by Wiegand that has seen better years. Ten years ago the experience was a joy, but no longer; today every single track join was marked by a horrible jolt that did its best to remodel my spine. It wasn't just my kart, either; Megan rode separately so as to maximise speed, and she had the same problem. I rather suspect that the original hardware is simply worn out; Toverland replaced their version this year, and I'd like to respectfully suggest that Nagashima Spa Land do the same with theirs before it causes a serious injury. (Only the right hand track was in use today; it may be that the left hand track is in better condition).

As we approached Ultra Twister we saw at least half a dozen fire engines, their emergency lights spinning. Closer inspection revealed that a large scale disaster exercise was taking place just outside the boundary wall of the park, and this provided an interesting backdrop (and indeed some comfort in having emergency services close to hand!) as we climbed into the car of one of the few remaining Togo Ultratwister rides. The experience was unsurprisingly identical to that of the similar ride two days earlier; a novelty coaster that would be fairly decent were it not for a brutally violent braking mechanism at the reversing point.

We decided to recharge batteries on the absolutely enormous sixty car BFOFW, an air conditioned unit stretching almost ninety metres into the sky. The cars were completely sealed, but the glass was clean enough to get some nice overhead photographs of what has to be one of the most spectacular park views in the world.

After a quick lunch break we headed for White Cyclone, an Intamin-built wooden coaster that has been the longest ride of its type in Asia for over two decades. There were obvious signs of new track in places, and given that it wasn't much of a surprise to find that the cornering issues of years past were not a problem today. That said, the layout was inordinately dull, consisting almost entirely of repetitive helices that did the same thing over and over again, reminiscent of a confused GPS. Three decent moments of airtime were enough for Megan to decide that she liked Recalculating: The Ride, though not quite enough to justify queuing for it a second time.

The park is home to the two remaining Schwarzkopf coasters in Japan, including a Looping Star that has for some inexplicable reason been fitted with completely unnecessary seat belts. Fortunately these have no impact whatsoever on the overall ride quality, which today was every bit as good as the other models. I found myself thinking back to the three glorious winters when one of these was available less than a mile from my house.

In its original location the ageing Corkscrew was overgrown, its two inversions almost completely shrouded by thick foliage. Nowadays it sits on a neatly manicured lawn that looks almost austere by comparison, though trees have been planted which should give it back its original look in a few years time. Visuals aside, the ride was unremarkable apart from a dramatic slam to the side half way round that generated a yell of pain from HRH (though she claims it to have been a yell of surprise). Park management is to be commended for preserving a historical ride like this, even if the experience is somewhat dated now.

Haunted House

We spent the next few minutes wandering through the Haunted House, a lengthy walkthrough with assorted scenes portraying Japanese country life as seen through the eye of a mass murderer. The interior had skulls, bones, and blood in abundance, and curiously, a smell of wood smoke. The general theme and appearance was fairly constant throughout, though there was a rather jarring transition into the final room where the hitherto dim lighting suddenly gave way to an eye popping mixture of neon blue, orange, and green; it was as if we'd accidentally stepped into a fun house by mistake.

There was a serious kick to the flywheel launch on Shuttle Loop, now one of just three rides to use the classic system following the re-engineering of Psyké Underground in 2013. The acceleration felt considerably faster than some of the more modern systems, a reminder (as if one were needed) of just how far ahead of his time the late Anton Schwarzkopf was. We did a front seat, then subsequently went for a second lap in the back.

We rode the Monorail for photographs before heading for the final credit, a Togo-built Jet Coaster with a large stacked figure eight layout made up of gentle slopes, straight drops, and long sweeping flat turns. The build date of the ride is unknown as of this writing, but the track design and support structure is identical to that seen on Toshimaen's Cyclone, which would tend to suggest that it dates back to the original opening of the park in 1964. The engineers clearly put a lot of effort into minimising forces, and the result is a gentle ride suitable for the entire family.

With all the coasters out of the way we decided to try a few of the flat rides. I've never had much of a stomach for machines that spin, and Megan has been progressively losing hers in recent years, but once in a while we make an exception for something unusual, and the Flying Carpet definitely fell into that category, being one of two models I've seen in my travels with inverted seats (the other being at Tivoli Gardens in Denmark). Though interesting on paper, the experience was somewhat underwhelming; there was bizarre lateral shuddering that occurred when the ride got up to speed, and the support structure for the seats in front of us blocked any external view.

The park is home to three interconnected S&S Space Shot towers, and as there was nobody queuing we decided that we might as well give them a try. Only one of them was in use today, but it was respectable enough, with a powerful launch and a reasonable amount of floating airtime at the apex. As we returned to earth we were treated to an English language recording suggesting that we should try all three towers, and we'd have happily done that if the other two were open!

The final stop of the day was on the first-generation Intamin Free Fall, our second encounter this year with the increasingly rare species. It was interesting to see only three seats in use in each car, with the fourth closed off using crime scene tape, perhaps to ease the strain on the lift mechanism. The ride was entirely as expected; a brief backward motion culminating in a rather hard thud, a rapid climb accompanied by mechanical noises, an exceptionally good freefall, a somewhat shaky stop, and a bit of clattering as our car was returned to the upright position.