Travel Note

4th September 2016

Some months ago I decided that it was time for a new job after four years and change working for the same company. In a real Dublin Bus moment I found myself with two offers on the table simultaneously after a period of drought. Both of them were very different, and after much reflection I decided that the best fit for my long term plans was a global role with a software company that would keep me based in Dublin, but which would require me to travel to other company offices from time to time. As part of the on-boarding process it was necessary for me to fly to Singapore for two weeks for training, and I intentionally scheduled in two nights to recover from jet lag on the grounds that I'd rather not be half asleep for my first day in a new job.

My flight landed in Changi Airport in the middle of Saturday afternoon. Immigration took just minutes, and against all expectation my bag was already waiting for me on the belt. The train into the city was a bit tricky, as the ticket machines would not accept either a foreign credit card or a fifty dollar banknote, but in due course I found another location that sold me a smart card, and an hour later I arrived at the mall across the road from my hotel where I enjoyed a very pleasant meal at the local branch of my favourite restaurant.

 

Universal Studios Singapore

4th September 2016

I decided to forgo the obvious pleasure of sleeping late in the interests of locking onto the local time as efficiently as possible, and thus was blasted awake at 8:00am by an unsympathetic alarm clock after almost eleven hours of blissful unconsciousness. That should have been enough time to get to Universal Studios Singapore for opening, but the inexplicable lack of proper coffee at the breakfast buffet meant that everything took me longer than it should have. As it was the park gate had been open for maybe thirty minutes when I approached, and what crowds there were had dissipated, allowing me to purchase my ticket and enter the facilities without any wait. There were plenty of people inside, but nobody seemed in any hurry to ride anything, and indeed the queues on the major rides only began to build around noon.

There were three new rides in the park since my last visit five years ago, including one coaster, and it will come as no surprise to the reader that I decided to begin my day there. Puss In Boots Giant Journey (#2297) is the first and as of this writing the only installation of a new style of coaster from Zamperla featuring enclosed suspended carriages that hang below the rail. Three across trains positively cry out for a dedicated single rider queue, but bizarrely the station was designed without one, resulting in a longer wait than necessary. Staff members today were making a valiant effort to bring forward singles from the last few sets of switchbacks, but a short dispatch interval brought on by the fleet of eight vehicles limited what could be realistically achieved that way.

Puss in Boots

An onboard sound system begins to play atmospheric music as the carriage leaves the station and engages a spiral lift hill whose rotating drive mechanism will be very familiar to fans of anyone who has ever seen a Volare. The climb is enclosed within a castle turret structure that hides the support structure from view while also playing host to static models of Puss and Kitty in suitably heroic poses. At the apex there is a superb view across the park followed by a tight left turn leading to the first "fast" section, a slightly angled S-bend negotiated at perhaps ten miles per hour past a cracked stained glass window and onto the first of several brake sections.

This doesn't actually stop the train, but it does slow it down to a child's walking pace ahead of a left turn past a nest filled with golden eggs that is being guarded by an oversized animatronic version of Great Terror. This is followed by the fastest portion of the entire layout, a drop of around twenty feet straight onto the next brake, which is surrounded by a series of swords and shields. Another slow turn connects onto a straight drop of around ten feet followed by a climb out and block brake with a few more animatronics. The words "time to celebrate" are heard as the train moves slowly around a collection of treasures into a final gentle drop before the end of the course.

The ride is definitely a roller coaster, but it feels dishonest to count it as a credit as the sensations really feel far more like an outdoor dark ride (if you'll forgive the contradiction in terms) with occasional fast bits between themed scenes. Having said that, I really liked it; I rode three times at various points in the day, and I'll certainly be going back for more on future visits. The tracking is almost completely smooth, a definite upgrade from other Zamperla rides, and while the limited top speed certainly helps with comfort levels the ride is faster than the 80STD design which is often very rough indeed.

Stop two was at Revenge of the Mummy, where I was able to walk directly into the rightmost seat in the front row. That location gave me a birds-eye view of a decidedly odd feature of the vehicles, namely hollow rectangular squares on each side that partially obscured the view for no obvious reason. The experience was respectable enough, and all the effects were working perfectly, but the forces seemed somewhat reduced from what they had been in 2010, possibly because I was riding early in the day before the wheels had had a chance to warm up fully.

I was much more impressed with Canopy Flyer, the first new roller coaster to be built by Setpoint since Roller Soaker opened eight years earlier. Sadly the ride was also very likely their last, as the company has since diversified into robotic automation systems leaving coasters and amusement rides behind. The change of focus is an enormous shame given the calibre of their final effort, a masterpiece of engineering that delivers a thrilling family coaster experience that would be a valuable asset in any park in the world. My sole lap today was in the backwards facing seats and I'd have gone back for another if the queue hadn't ballooned to well over an hour by the time I disembarked.

Transformers

The second new-to-me attraction today was Transformers, where I joined the single rider queue behind three United pilots who had apparently operated the direct service from San Francisco the previous evening. They were engaged in an animated discussion about onboard catering, and it was all I could do not to chip in with memories of the tray of putrefied diarrhoea I'd been served en route to Newark the previous year. I figured that I'd learn more by silently eavesdropping however, and indeed I did when the conversation pivoted onto a discussion of single engine climb performance and troubleshooting procedures. I was rather enjoying the conversation and for once in my life was in no hurry to reach the front.

The basic premise of the new ride is, predictably enough, to defend the AllSpark from the Decepticons. Having said that, a plot is arguably superfluous for an attraction that is fundamentally an upgraded version of the technology introduced with the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman ride way back in 1999. All that the reader really needs to know is that guests are placed within an elaborate 3D environment with enormous screens and motion simulation that works extremely well; there were several points in the layout where it felt like our car was moving at considerable speed. I learned later that the construction costs hit one hundred million dollars, and to be blunt, it shows.

The third addition since my last visit was also a dark ride, albeit one that didn't have a nine figure budget. Sesame Street Spaghetti Space Chase was nevertheless a highly enjoyable expedition to return pasta to earth following its theft by Macaroni the Merciless with the aid of Elmo, who provided a running commentary of what was happening on a small video screen in each car. The proportions used for the scenes were perhaps a little out of scale, given that no known foodstuffs currently stretch beyond the diameter of Earth, but one doubts that inaccuracy would bother the target audience all that much!

With everything new out of the way I decided that it was time to experience the revamped Battlestar Galactica, which the park proudly promotes as the world's tallest duelling coasters. The two tracks originally operated with thirty-two seat trains featuring four riders per row, but a number of serious problems (including the failure of a seat during an early morning test) resulted in lengthy periods of closure. In 2015, the trains were modified to only seat two in each row, halving capacity, and while the result is far from ideal for a signature attraction it does at least allow for consistent and reliable operation.

A member of staff was using a metal detection wand to scan all those entering the queue today to make sure that all potential loose objects had been stored in the free lockers. As an added safety measure there was a recorded announcement played every five minutes reminding guests (in English and Chinese) of the requirements. Each spiel was followed by a thirty second list of various items that were considered "loose". Despite all this, one lady in front of me managed to deceive the metal detector only to have her mobile phone spotted on a security camera, resulting in her unceremonious removal. The level of neurosis and paranoia on display was beyond ridiculous, and turned what should have been a fun experience into an ordeal reminiscent of travelling through an airport.

Transformers

The operation speeds, though not awful, were nevertheless far below what would be the norm for a major park. Only one train was in use on each track, and each side was dispatching about once every three minutes. Unfortunately, every second train was completely devoted to express pass users, meaning that the throughput for those who'd bought the $74 one day pass topped out at a pathetic one hundred and sixty per hour. The posted wait time of forty minutes on the red Human track was significantly understated; it took me just over an hour to get to the front. (While I don't have any hard data to support this hypothesis, it looked to me like the launches were being deliberately interleaved, presumably due to the incidents on a similar ride in Florida).

The train was coasting back into the station ready for me to board when an an announcement was made indicating an immediate shutdown due to extreme inclement weather in the area, resulting in a collective sigh from the masses waiting in line. The skies outside looked perfectly clear from my vantage point, and remained so over the subsequent siesta. Nothing obvious had changed when the operators dispatched an empty test train some thirty-five minutes later, followed by a second with a lone operator occupying a seat in the front row. The young lady seemed decidedly unimpressed by her experience, returning with something akin to a scowl on her face, but her safe return nevertheless allowed the rest of us on board.

The ride itself was memorable only for its mediocrity. The layout started with what was originally designed as a launched lift hill, but the sensation today was more akin to a fast chain lift with the train slowing dramatically as it crested the apex. The first drop was pretty good, but the rest of the course consisted of lazy turns that felt slightly less energetic than the average Roller Skater. On the positive side, the tracking was perfectly smooth from my seat in row four, with none of the roughness that I wrote about in my old report; perhaps the lighter rolling stock allowed for better shock absorbers?

After disembarking I went to investigate the blue Cylon track, only to find that it hadn't reopened following the invisible extreme weather. I duly retrieved my various accoutrements from the locker so as to not fall foul of the time limit allocated for free rentals. Ten minutes later a test train was cycled, so I decided to reverse procedure and set up camp at the queue entrance. My persistence was rewarded moments later when I was able to walk right into the front seat with no wait at all. The two across train looked much like any other SLC train, albeit with one key difference; the restraint was a soft vest attached to a lap bar rather than the hideous OTSR found on the majority of Vekoma inverters.

The experience was in a totally different league to the boring Human track. The launch and first drop were broadly equivalent, but the layout from that point on featured a smorgasbord of inversions negotiated effortlessly. There was a minor dead spot between the second and third inversions where a helix was perhaps a little slower than it should have been, but aside from that the ride was excellent, coming as close to perfection as anything Vekoma has produced. (It's worth mentioning in passing that the design does not include strong forces; those after such things might be better off sticking with older generation B&M inverters such as Batman the Ride and Pyrenees).

My next stop was at Lights, Camera, Action, a special effects show. The experience began with a pre-show introduced by a member of staff who asked us to give a round of applause for Mr Steven Spielberg who duly appeared on an oversized projection screen. I decided to ignore this request, as I'm not inclined to applaud videos regardless of their calibre, but I listened politely to a brief explanation of the use of sound stages and special effects in movie production followed by an explanation of what we'd be seeing in the next room – a category five hurricane hitting New York. The main show was a fairly typical affair consisting of wind, rain, fire, and towards the end a large ship pulling into the scene, concluding with an abrupt stop accompanied by a cry of reset!

Madagascar

I had a slightly surreal experience on the Madagascar dark ride as the only person in our sixteen seat boat who wasn't watching the experience from start to end through a mobile phone screen, in complete disregard for the large no photography sign in the station. I've still not seen the movie but I enjoyed the scenery regardless, especially the signage along the path which became progressively more bad tempered: Danger, turn back; No, the other back; Really, we mean it; Are you always this stubborn? The last fifteen seconds of the layout were accompanied by I Like to Move It which promptly got stuck in my head where it remained for the balance of the day.

It would have been rude of me not to do at least a token (sympathy?) lap on Enchanted Airways. There was some live theatre in the queue when a middle-aged Chinese man attempted to skip most of the horrendous five minute wait only to meet his match in the guise of a Singaporean septuagenarian whose expert command of colourful metaphors embarrassed him into apologising profusely and leaving the scene with alacrity. Her actions awarded me a front row seat, from where I had an excellent ride despite the fact that the lap bar barely made it over my knees.

By this stage I'd done everything on my list and would have happily returned to my hotel for an early night, but I'd made plans to meet a work colleague for dinner and had about an hour to kill before the appointed time. With that in mind, I decided to watch Shrek 4D, and for the first time in my life I caught the entire pre-show, featuring the three little pigs and Pinnochio in captivity. The mirror on the wall was asked to tell a story, and began with long long ago in a galaxy far far away before apologising for getting a bit spaced out. The humour continued in a similar vein throughout the movie, and the various special effects worked unusually well.

As the credits began to roll a member of staff came over the PA system to advise that a lightning alert had just closed all outdoor attractions. I decided to head for the closest indoor option, which turned out to be the Donkey Live show. The ebullient staff member running the pre-show was insistent that everyone should remain behind a yellow line or they would be fined. "Why would you be fined, you might ask?" he said, before switching into an exaggerated local accent: "Because this is Singapore. It's what we do".

The main performance began with a singing performance of I smell good covering the famous James Brown song, followed by a section of live talking. The voice actor today was not quite as authentic as the one I saw in 2011, but he did a passable job and the various children he spoke with didn't seem to notice. The first grouping was a set of twins from Wales who gave brown-nose answers to the various questions, answering "Universal Studios" when asked what they liked to do for fun. The second was a local who could not have been more than six years old who was asked to pick a number between one and ten for Donkey to guess. The live actor got it wrong twice, and asked her to whisper it to the host who then held up fingers behind her head so that the correct value could be given. The show ended with some enthusiastic dancing, in which the audience was encouraged to participate.