Travel Note

23rd September 2017

My job requires me to make bimonthly business trips to Singapore, a seventeen hour journey from my home in Ireland that crosses eight time zones. The most convenient flight routings go via London, but the cost of those tends to be prohibitive in comparison to the Middle Eastern carriers, who generally come in at around half the price for what is invariably a superior service. The big hubs in that part of the world offer flights to all the major cities in Europe, and in recent months I've realised that it's generally possible to stopover in one of them at little to no cost, giving both a shorter flight and reduced jet lag. An experimental weekend in Paris at the end of July worked out fairly well, and with that in mind I scheduled a flight into Barcelona for this weekend so that we could enjoy the new roller coaster at Ferrari Land. I was able to find a closely matching Ryanair arrival from Dublin for Megan, and our friends George and Andy found something similar on Monarch Airlines from Birmingham.

Things would have worked out beautifully were it not for the unfortunate interference of mother nature. I was already in the air en route from Dubai when a mid-afternoon storm over Catalonia caused an hour long suspension of flight operations, and though there were no cancellations the schedules went completely out the window. The net result was that my flight was the only one of our three to land on time; the others both came in over two hours late. It was after midnight by the time we'd cleared formalities and driven to our hotel, over twenty-four hours after my early morning alarm clock, and I was in an advanced stage of non-functionality. The one saving grace was the fact that we hadn't planned an early start.

 

Ferrari Land

23rd September 2017

It costs a lot of money to build an amusement park. Major roller coasters can easily soak up twenty million euro or more, clearly explaining why large corporates often have not-terribly-subtle signs acknowledging sponsors. What these benefactors gain from advertising in this way has never been clear to me as a guest; my lack of enthusiasm for Panasonic-branded electronics has not been impacted by the Monsters Inc dark ride at Tokyo Disneyland, and similarly my opinion of Friendly's (and other American diners) has remained resolutely unchanged despite experiencing Wicked Cyclone. Sponsoring an entire theme park is perhaps slightly more beneficial to a brand, though one only has to look at the failed Hard Rock Park to see just how badly things can go wrong.

Ferrari Land

The idea of a Ferrari-branded park in Spain began to circulate within days of the launch of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi back in 2010. For a long time it looked like the development would go to the city of Valencia, as the local authorities were willing to provide the land for the project at no charge. However, the talks eventually ended without an agreement. In 2014 it was announced that the proposed park would be built next to the existing Port Aventura resort, whose operators were prepared to front the money required to make the project a reality. The plans were scaled back considerably over the installation in the United Arab Emirates, but even still the construction cost still came to one hundred million euro.

For the first few months of operation management decided to capitalise on their existing investment by refusing to sell standalone tickets for Ferrari Land. Instead, the new area was available only as a €20 daily add-on for regular resort tickets who would presumably be tempted by the sight of an enormous roller coaster clearly visible from the car park. TripAdvisor reviews from those who did take the plunge were decidedly mixed, with many feeling that the headline admission price was simply too high for a park with just six adult-friendly rides in it (a coaster, a flying theatre, a simulator, a themed set of antique cars, and a pair of S&S towers). By the time of our visit this asinine policy had been dropped, but we decided to go for the combined ticket regardless as we figured (correctly) that we'd have trouble spending a whole day at the new park.

It was about twenty minutes after opening when we arrived, and while there were other guests milling about it was immediately evident that the park was virtually empty. The wait time sign indicated a twenty minute queue for the coaster and five minute queues for everything else, but we figured that we might as well go for the credit first as the wait time would presumably get longer over the course of the day. This was unequivocally the right decision, albeit for an unforeseen reason; just minutes after our first lap the ride shut down due to a technical problem, remaining out of service for three hours. No announcement was made as to the cause, though we did spot a number of haggard-looking engineers working on an electrical distribution box during the outage.

Red Force (#2387) is a twenty-five second long thrill featuring a launch, a climb to the heights, a drop, a brake run, and a slight ascent back to the station. From the perspective of the average guest the experience is essentially the same as several existing Intamin creations, though the new ride has Indrivetec Linear Synchronous Motors in place of the hydraulic launch that has been commonplace for the last few years. The decision to revert back to a propulsion system first used in the mid-nineties is an interesting one that is worth considering; on the positive side, the lack of a catch car and cable mechanism reduces the risk of a catastrophic mechanical failure and allows for a much faster reset time. On the negative side, the energy requirement for a LSM system is enormous, especially at higher top speeds, thus increasing the day to day running cost.

One interesting side effect of the electrical launch is that the accelerating train produces a sound not altogether dissimilar to the engine of a Formula One car, albeit at a lower volume. This makes the ride particularly fun to watch, and the park has capitalised on this by installing a covered grandstand directly alongside the launch track that gives a brief view of the trains as they race past. There is also a large display screen showing the live feed from a camera set just inside the station building. The design is theoretically capable of launching one train every thirty-six seconds, and though things were not quite that efficient today the operators were still managing a launch every minute or so.

Red Force

The ride operates with short trains with six rows seating two apiece. We were assigned to row four, and while we'd have preferred a free choice of seat the lack of one was understable given the need for high throughput without a double loading station. The sole restraint was a pull-down lap bar similar to that found on Skyrush, which the operator pushed on to make sure it was firm against my legs. Moments later we were dispatched. The train rolled slowly out of the station, and began to accelerate with no pause. There was some definite shuffling as the speed picked up, a surprising issue on such a new coaster, though it faded as the train began its vertical climb. The view from the apex was, as ever, spectacular, and the drop was superb, though the shuffle did come back towards the base, implying that the wheel bogies are not at their best when the train is at full speed.

There are many good features of the ride, not least a fantastic launch and a restraint design that constitutes a major improvement over the harnesses found on Kingda Ka. However, the shuffling seriously detracts from the experience, and one suspects that it will get worse as time goes on. The additional height and speed over the previous European installation, though clearly noticeable from on board, makes precious little difference in the grand scheme of things; at the end of the day, it's accelerate, up, down, and brake, and (sound effects aside) I'd challenge anyone to tell the difference between the rides when blindfolded. As much as I enjoy fast coasters I'd rather a smooth eighty miles an hour over a bumpy one hundred and ten any day. My initial impression of comfort issues was reinforced by a second ride later in the day (in the same row, as luck would have it), and while other trip reports indicate that the front is smoother the fact is that 83% of passengers don't get to sit there.

Our second stop was at Flying Dreams, a flying theatre similar in concept to the Soarin' rides at the Disney parks. The experience began with a visually impressive queue built into a room resembling a cinema auditorium, though we spent far longer in there than we'd have chosen as the queue moved extremely slowly. After almost an hour we were escorted into a pre-show room where we watched a three minute long talk from a projection of Enzo Ferrari. This began well enough with a brief commentary about making the transition from racing driver to the founder of a car company, but then it degenerated into self-aggrandising drivel about how his cars needed to be driven with both head and heart, and how their engines were like finely tuned orchestras, and so on. When this came to an end (and we stopped smirking) we descended several flights of stairs into the bowels of the earth for the main show sequence.

The film placed us behind the wheel of a number of different thoroughbreds from the Maranello stable, and that might have worked well enough if the producers had taken their footage from fixed cameras within the vehicles. Unfortunately the majority of the imagery was shot from drones, resulting in a continuously changing camera angle that simply did not work with the flying effect. There was an attempt to synchronise the motion of the theatre with the motion of the camera, though it didn't work that well, and in any case there was no way to cover dramatic visual jumps between countries explained away in half a second of crossfaded video. The final nail in the coffin for me was severe fish-eye in the footage, something that should really have been corrected during postproduction.

The reason for our lengthy wait became clear when we re-entered the same queue building for Racing Legends, a simulator ride. The pre-show room was shared with the flying theatre, and the performance was word for word identical, a shockingly lazy cop-out thoroughly unbecoming of the Ferrari brand. As with earlier the main ride room was several stories down, with a number of eight-seat motion bases in front of a giant screen. The video here featured rendered equivalents of well known race tracks rather than actual footage, making the whole thing look like a low budget Playstation game. There was a brief water splash effect at one stage, but it was out of sync with the screen, spraying us perhaps half a second before we hit the on-screen puddle. (As an aside, glasses were not allowed during the ride for no obvious reason, as the motions were nowhere near violent enough to risk them being thrown.)

Racing Legends

The reader might legitimately wonder at this point whether I've got anything nice to say about Ferrari Land at all, given that I've been less than enthusiastic about what are arguably the three main attractions. The major thing the place has going for it is its architecture, which includes well presented scale replicas of many famous Italian buildings, including the Campanile of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, the Colosseum in Rome, and the La Scala Theatre in Milan. Those with an interest in the Ferrari brand will likely also enjoy the Ferrari Land Gallery, an interactive exhibit charting the history of the Italian Scuderia (though photographs in that building are not permitted). Those interested in rides however will likely be bored quickly; we had seen everything we wanted to within the park by the early part of the afternoon, and I honestly doubt that we'll bother paying the surcharge for a repeat visit even if it is still required by the time we next make it to Port Aventura.

 

Port Aventura

23rd September 2017

We began our visit to Port Aventura with a search for somewhere to store the park maps we'd collected from Ferrari Land. We found a bank of single-use lockers in front of Furius Baco, and we paid a euro for one. This story wouldn't feature in my trip report at all but for the fact that our locker was empty when we came back to it several hours later, and while the items stolen had no cash value it nevertheless speaks extremely ill of the park that something like this could happen. We asked at guest services whether there was a time limit on the lockers that we were unaware of, but we were told that their wasn't; in fact the staff member we spoke to was adamant that we'd somehow failed to use ours properly despite the fact that our one-time access code opened the door without issue.

In the spirit of getting the negatives out of the way quickly it's worth recording that large numbers of attractions were closed for our visit, including virtually all of the park restaurants and several of the shows. We had hoped to experience Templo del Fuego, which was open when we arrived, but it had closed for the day by the time we made it there. There was no excuse for this, given that the park was actively busy with lengthy queues for all the major rides. Our general level of irritation was amplified yet further by aggressive attempts to sell fast passes throughout the park; we spotted several vending machines selling instant line jumps, and access to front seats was essentially reserved for those paying extra for the privilege.

Our first ride was on Furius Baco, the world's only Intamin Wing Rider, named after the Roman god of the grape harvest, ritual madness, and wine. Quality wines are supposed to improve with age, though this is one area where the authenticity of the theming has fallen down; the ride was not good in 2008 and it isn't good now. We were assigned to row two, where the vibration wasn't dreadful, but it was still not something that we'd have willingly repeated. On the positive side, the launch at the start was forceful and smooth, but on the negative side was, well, everything else. The various transitions were actively uncomfortable, with a particular black mark due for the pointless inversion towards the end of the course. One might have hoped that park management would have done something to improve a signature attraction that hurts people, though perhaps they've decided that they don't need to given that it still draws hour long queues outside of peak season.

Furius Baco

There was a ninety minute wait posted for Stampida, and neither of us felt standing in line that long. Instead we joined the short queue for Tomahawk, a family sized wood coaster upgraded in 2015 with new trains from Great Coasters International. The new Mini-llennium Flyers, initially developed for Coastersaurus, were very comfortable and definitely more forgiving on my knees than the original PTC rolling stock. The result was a remarkably enjoyable ride; the tracking was a little bouncy, as one might expect for a two decade old wood coaster, but the bumps had no material impact on the overall experience. With infinite time I'd happily have gone back for a few more laps.

It was tempting to pass over Diablo, the last but one of the Arrow mine trains, but Megan's affinity for all things from that manufacturer made it a priority. The ride is an entirely typical example of the mine train genre, with three lift hills connected by twenty second long meanders around coat-hanger turns that clatter far more than they should given the relatively low top speed. The experience was dull in the extreme, with the only selling points being the theming and landscaping which at least made the ride visually interesting. Aside from those however it was a credit boxed off and quickly forgotten.

Our next stop was at Dragon Khan, the eight inversion B&M that broke two world records when it opened: the world's tallest vertical loop (succeeded by Mantis) and the most inversions on a coaster (succeeded by Colossus). The main spine of the track had clearly been repainted in the recent past, as it looked great in the afternoon sun. The rails were not in as good shape, with quite a bit of visible rust, though it's worth noting that this had no impact on the comfort level which was significantly better than I remembered from 2012. The only significant jarring was at the base of the first drop where the train shuffled from side to side briefly; the tracking otherwise was remarkably smooth for an attraction that has been running virtually all year round for over two decades.

The highlight of the day was always going to be Shambhala, after five years still the tallest traditional roller coaster in Europe. There were three trains in use today, but despite that the queue moved extremely slowly, and as we got towards the front it became clear why; fully three quarters of the seats were being loaded from the express pass queue, which was being used by a core group of people to marathon the ride. This was completely understandable (we'd have done the same thing with wristbands) but the number of guests being allowed through that way was far in excess of what it should be. It was considerably later when we were assigned to row three, and darkness had fallen, giving us a wonderful sense of peace as we rolled out of the station onto the darkened lift hill. The serenity of the moment was abruptly shattered seconds later by a bank of white lights shining directly into our faces. After a few seconds adjusting we realised that they were from the on-board cameras, which had switched into night vision mode. These didn't ruin the overall experience, which was laden with airtime and perfectly smooth, but they were definitely not an improvement; I'd have much preferred to ride in semi-darkness admiring the colours from elsewhere in the park.

My energy level had hit zero by the time we disembarked, as inevitably happens in the evening after a seven hour time zone jump. George and Andy had already parked themselves at a restaurant close to the park entrance hours before, and with three out of four of us at the end of our rope Megan kindly agreed to abort the remaining credits in the full knowledge that it will likely be several years before our next trip to the park. We therefore made our way back to our car almost three hours before the posted closing time for the drive back to our overnight hotel.

Night Falls