I know folks around here tend to favor pictures - but seeing as this is one of my shorter trip reports, I thought I'd share it here:
Las Vegas Coasters
Las Vegas, Nevada
Saturday, October 22nd - Friday Oct 28th 2011
Roller Coaster - New York, New York Casino
Canyon Blaster - Circus Circus' Adventuredome
Desperado - Buffalo Bill's Casino (Primm, NV)
You wouldnít believe the shock people displayed when Iíd say Iíd never been to Las Vegas. Iím not sure if itís because they know I like to travel, or because they think itís the greatest place in the world and not visiting is an insult to its awesomeness. Either way, I figured Iíd get there eventually Ė and thanks to a business trip, eventually finally came.
The conference lasted less than a week, but with additional set-up and logistical responsibilities, Iíd end up being there for eight days. Now even for someone that, like me, doesnít mind a slot machine or a cocktail, thatís a long time. What it did provide was an opportunity to make a few short side trips to hit the small but eclectic coaster collection this desert oasis offers.
It was hard not to be a little disappointed that, earlier in the year, the most highly regarded coaster in the area ceased operation. With the Sahara Casino closing, so did the NASCAR Cafť and its signature Premier LIM-launched shuttle coaster, Speed: The Ride. Sure, Stratosphere removed its dubious coaster some years back, but this latest removal was a big step back in the areaís thrill ride offerings.
What it left was a trio of coasters, each more infamous than the last. The most notorious is Roller Coaster (formerly Manhattan Express) at the New York, New York Casino, towards the south of the strip. This 1997 custom installation by the (now unemployed) folks at TOGO sent tremors through the industry as their largest and most intricate offering in the US, by a wide margin. Unfortunately, the tremors seemed to be implemented on the ride itself.
A close second in negative reputation made even bigger waves in the amusement industry just a few years prior. Desperado, at Buffalo Billís Casino in nearby Primm, NV, was one of a small class of coasters built in the mid-90s that accelerated the roller coaster arms race and exemplified the modern golden age of the amusement park thrill ride.
Along with its sister coaster across the pond in Blackpool, England, the Pepsi Max Big One, Desperado was built by Arrow Dynamics as a direct response to Cedar Pointís topping of the 200 foot height barrier by Magnum XL-200 some five years prior. These two competing coasters marked the beginning of an era of unabashed, not to mention occasional contentious, coaster competition, and their impact on the landscape of todayís amusement industry canít be overlook.
But they also both now approach 20 years of operation, and given their source, ride-ability has certainly come into question. I was lucky enough to experience Pepsi Max for myself just a year prior, so while not exactly fresh in my mind, I was keen on making a comparison that most people will never get to make.
On a considerably lesser level of notoriety is Canyon Blaster, an indoor, double loop, double corkscrew coaster. Also from Arrow, this slightly customized version of one of their mainstay models is shoehorned into Circus Circusí Adventuredome, which really represents the only true amusement park in easily a couple hundred miles (hey, Disneyland is only 224 miles away!)
I arrived in Las Vegas on one of the rowdier flights Iíve experienced, but thatís to be expected on a Friday evening. It was far too late to do any coastering or other enjoyment of the city by the time I survived the taxi queue from the airport and got settled my hotel room. I know a midnight bedtime is embarrassingly early for a weekend in Las Vegas, but I was on the clock in the morning, and I figured it best to pace myself.
I was staying at the Luxor, so the trip next door to the Mandalay Bay could have been worse, but even crossing the casinos and getting to the convention center was a mile schlep. Saturday was spent setting up, and thanks to a long day busy with preparation, we had made great progress by the end. This meant an evening to enjoy myself.
With varying degrees of distance and operation times, Iíd have to fit hitting the coasters into my busy schedule wisely. This first night Iíd shoot to check off the nearby New York, New York coaster. Adventuredome was open daily as well, but with the nighttime Halloween haunt festivities, uninspiringly dubbed Fright Dome, regular park operation only went until 6pm. That meant Iíve have to squeeze it in the next day, or include it in my free day on Friday, when I was hoping to make the trip to Primm.
Casting aside logistics for later, I had a great chance to get a much maligned credit. Iíve had much experience with TOGO, having ridden their flagship coaster, Fujiyama at Fuji-Q Highland in Japan just a month prior. Iíve also experienced the now-defunct Viper at SF Great Adventure, and the soon-to-be-defunct Shockwave at Kings Dominion. That represented about as wide a range as TOGO entered, and a good sampling of their engineering limitations.
Not to say those coasters werenít significant and relevant in the industry in their time, in fact each is rather notable Ė but thereís no question TOGO lacks what one would call a pleasant rider experience. Shockwave has awkward restrains and rattles through its entire stand-up course. Fujiyama jars riders for at least ĺ of its massive hypercoaster layout. And Viper. Oh Viper. While is offered a somewhat more traditional sitdown configuration, its twist-and-dive and heartline maneuvers made it famous Ė but itís violent, painful execution made it one of the most hated coasters in existence.
Obviously none of this bade well for Roller Coaster. On paper, it looked like a hell of a ride. Topping out at over 200 feet, diving down almost 150 feet at 67mph, with two inversions and over 4700 feet of track, it had the stats to match any of the most impressive multi-element coasters. It just doesnít get it done.
Crossing through Excalibur into the New York, New York Casino, you find the coaster through the back of the casino floor, and up in the hotelís arcade. As usual, nothing is easy to find in a casino, by design, but I soon found my way to your typical amusement ride set up: lockers, queuing, a gift shop. The only thing that was oddly out of place was the cash registers just before the station. I charged the ridiculous $14 admission fee for a single ride, not at all concerned I was missing out on the 2-for-$20 deal.
It was a bit jarring to see a coaster station out of the context of a park, but the setup itself was quite typical. Being a Saturday evening, it wasnít surprising to see more than a few people queued up for seats, but I was glad there wasnít more than a couple train wait. In fact, they seemed to be running two trains, though with the rideís expansive layout, separate unloading station, and slow loading, they werenít exuding efficiency.
But it didnít matter much. I momentarily considered waiting extra for the front row, but seeing an empty spot with an odd-numbered group in the second car (of four), I decided just to get it over with. The trains are new; Premier ones replaced the original manufacturer ones, but they still sport the sharp taxi cab theme, and also retain some pretty perplexing restraints. The Premier lap bar weíve become accustomed to is used in tandem with a fixed depth but adjustable height shoulder harness. It harkens back to the restraints on Viper that were, at best, ill-fitting, and at worse, an impediment to even modest enjoyment of the ride.
Fearing the worst, I could only hold on tight as the train was sent out of the station, around the back side of the casino. Up the lift youíre gaining height while heading away from the strip, but the views over your shoulder are still impressive, and possibly the highlight of the ride. The train levels off at the peak of the lift, and slowly rolls towards the first drop. At this point, it was beyond clear to me that there was no turning back.
The first drop has a bit of a curve to it as it rounds the corner and heads directly towards Tropicana Boulevard. It wasnít the most painful Iíve experienced, but its modest thrill was equaled by some moderate vibration. The peak of the second hill makes a 90 degree turn to the left and sets on its way to the Strip. The second drop is a bit more enjoyable. Itís steeper and straighter, as Fujiyama flashes into my head, specifically the thought that if youíre going in a straight line, things arenít so bad.
Unfortunately, that brought the straight line portion of the ride to an end. The next hill is a slow, curving uphill and descent that puts us front and center on the edge of Las Vegas Boulevard. Itís too bad I was onboard. Weird over and under-banking on this hill is just a precursor of whatís to come, and its downhill slope leads into the first inversion, an unremarkable vertical loop.
Without much time to recover from the rattling flip, the trains climb uphill, and make an incredibly awkward flip to the left, leaving rides hanging upside down against the harnesses for a moment, before the train rights it self by suddenly diving down underneath itself. That last part made me forget how weird the maneuver was by giving me a painful jolt square in the back.
Next up is the merciful mid-course brake run, and the rest of the ride is a series of hills, curves, and a jarring helix before the final brake run and the return to the station. It was easy to pass on the discounted re-ride. The walk back through the arcade and casino provides ample time, though not exactly a calm environment to assess the experience.
To be honest, Iíd be lying if I said this was the worst coaster Iíve ever ridden, and that alone is a bit of a pleasant surprise. I think what we have here is the classic case of a coaster having so much potential and then falling flat in pretty much every day. The height and speed were pretty much wasted, the inversions were poorly executed, and the ride experience was generally uncomfortable. Iíd say if it wasnít for the exceptionally unique placement, over the casino and so close to the strip, there would be almost nothing going for it. Then again, if youíre the kind of person that doesnít mind getting knocked around, Iíd say that itís worth a shot Ė and you may even find it a positive experience.
I did not, all things considered, and it ended up still rather close to the bottom of my rankings, a mere three spots up from the absolute last. Iím glad I did it, as an enthusiast thereís no question itís a must, but barring any monumental improvement in the experience in the future, I see no need to ever ride it again. Seems pretty harsh for a ride I found not as bad as I expected right? Guess that shows exactly how low my hopes were.
Having made such good progress work-wise on Saturday, I was left with a little free time on Sunday to make the trip up the strip and visit the Adventuredome. There was no easy and cheap way to get there, a cab can add up fast, and walking would have been brutal. I split the difference and went with the Las Vegas Monorail, which still involved money and a fair amount of walking.
I headed over to MGM to catch it, and thatís its southern terminus. I rode it several stops to the Hilton, which looked on the map to be the closest station to Circus Circus, though was still considerably east of the strip. It was easily another half mile to the casino, and once all the way through it, I was spit out into a parking garage, and mistakenly followed the outdoor signage to the Fright Dome entrance, which was clearly closed up during the day.
Realizing I was directly below the indoor park with no obvious entrance, I returned to the casino frustrated, and asked for directions from an employee who was in the midst of the Sunday noon checkout rush. Apparently Iíd need to take the elevator up a flight, and there Iíd find the entrance. It was a relief when I did, and I could finally take in this small but interesting park.
There werenít a ton a rides, bit a good assortment and easily enough to fill up a few hours if youíre with an ambitious group. There were single ride tickets that ranged from $8-$5, as well as an all-you-can-ride option that made sense if you were looking to get on multiple rides. All I cared about was a token ride on Canyon Blaster, so as I entered the dome I was on the lookout for a ticket booth as I made my way to the back.
I passed all sorts of park diversions, rides, games, laser tag, again, it seemed like a nice enough park. At the far end, I found a ticket booth, got my single ride ticket for the coaster, and worked my way up to the entrance. The train was just as empty as the station as it pulled in, and I jumped in for a front seat ride.
Considering this coaster is sheltered from the elements, there was a good chance the rumors of its tolerability were true. Most Arrow coasters donít have the best reputation, for good reason, but a handful of them seem to be exceptions to the rule. Most notably, Carolina Cyclone at Carowinds and Corkscrew at Cedar Point have managed to give good rides for most of their 15+ years.
It was nice to be on an old-school Arrow ride and not fear the worst. The dip and turn out of the station brings you quickly to the lift, and soon your up against the ceiling of the dome. Youíll find the classic U-turn and drop, and you dive right into back-to-back loops. Into another turn, you set up for the double corkscrew, and finish off with a few spins and tunnels before hitting the brakes.
Certainly itís a short ride, but it packs a lot in. No question is it smoother than the vast majority of your Arrow coasters, even the ones without inversions. Itís still got some bumpiness to it, so donít expect too much there, but itís pretty bearable. If anything, the great placement shoehorned into the scenery (including some manmade canyons) and among the other rides and above the midways is the real highlight, and it makes a decent but otherwise forgettable clone into a surprisingly worthwhile ride. Before I sound too enthusiastic, letís keep in mind that while it may be the best corkscrew model Iíve come across, that doesnít exactly say all that much.
That would put an end to my coaster riding for at least a little while. I took a cab back to the Luxor and was back at work from Sunday through Thursday. I can easily say it was one of the longest weeks of my life, in part thanks to the intensity of presenting to customers hour after hour, but mostly because being in a place like Vegas for so long can wear on you.
Once all the hard work was done, there was some time to relax and enjoy ourselves. This included a ride up the strip for dinner at Bouchon at the Venetian, and then a late evening stroll all the way back down. There was also a stop at the famed fountains at Bellagio. I was eager to see what was generally considered the inspiration for Disneylandís World of Color. Needless to say, there were shades of it, and it was certainly impressive to see, but paled in comparison to what Disney has put together.
Finally, my last day had come. I had been mentally debating whether it would be worth the effort and cost to make the trip to Primm, and as check-out time approached, I still hadnít made a decision. A quick call to the attractions line at the casino confirmed that it was operating, but next I would need a rental car. While pre-booked rates had been reasonable over the past few weeks, it looked like ďday ofĒ reservations had more than doubled in price. Maybe Iíd need to find another way to spend the day until my 8pm flight.
As a last-ditch effort, I checked my corporate discount with Hertz, and found a rate almost as low as what Iíd been seeing weeks before. I booked it, checked out, and got myself a quick cab ride to the rental car area at the airport. I was in my tiny car in short order, and on the road south towards LA.
Thanks to the expansive flatness of this part of the country, I was able to see the towns a good 10 miles down the road. That certainly added some anticipation as Desperado started as tiny yellow streaks in the distance, and soon became a series of towering steel hills. I pulled into the lot and parked right in its shadow, and briskly walked into and through the casino to a ticket booth. With a handful of rides, an all-you-can-ride option was $30, but I instead went with two ride tickets at $10 apiece.
I climbed the stairs into the station, handed in my first ticket, and found an empty station. Of course I was going to go for the front row, and I waited patiently for the train. I kept on waiting as it returned, unloaded a handful of riders, and I was permitted to board. While waiting for folks to trickle in, I was able to soak up the early 90ís Arrow hypercoaster stylings (e.g., aged trains, tired lap bars, etc.) It was hard to believe it had been less than a year since my rides on Pepsi Max Big One Ė and even harder to believe itíd been over seven since my last rides on Magnum XL-200 at Cedar Point.
With plenty of time to contemplate this infamous landmark of the coaster world, we were eventually dispatched up the massive hill. Into the blinding sun we could see for miles in every direction, but once we topped out at over 200 feet, there was only one way to go. The front row had its trademark overhang, and after the brief pause, all hell broke loose.
Desperado is one of those quirky coasters that has a drop in excess of its height, in its case thanks to an underground tunnel. 225 feet below the peak, trains scream through maybe 100 feet of darkness at 80mph and forcefully pull up skywards. The climb takes a sweeping curve to the left, straightening out just it time to hit the peak of the second hill, giving a pop of airtime immediately before diving into the signature high-speed spiral.
The train chugs down the second hill, easily close in on a teeth-rattling 75 mph as it curves down the left. Right at ground level, the spiral starts back upward, levels off, and then takes another curving dive, this time to the right. Here things straighten out a bit with a series of bunny hops, each with a good airtime thrust up in the front.
A curve to the right finds the mid-course brake run, still a heck of a ways above the parking lot below, and the second half of the ride kicks off. The sky high maneuvers are traded in for action closer to the ground as it seemingly goes from hypercoaster to out-of-control mine train Ė not to say that the first half felt anything close to ďin control.Ē
Still with a surprising amount of speed, not to mention jostle, the track slowly heads downhill and gains speed as it winds its way towards some manmade mountains, ducks inside for helix before completing another spiral perilously close to canyon walls, Thunder Mountain-style. Thereís one last head-chopper dipping underneath the monorail and the final brakes kill off most of the remaining speed.
Iíve never ridden a mechanical bull, but I expect this to be a rather similar experience. Thankfully I was strapped in, but I was still taken for a wild, bumpy, intense ride. Desperado has much in common with its Arrow brethren Ė impressive if slightly jarring moments of airtime, raucous low-ground maneuvers, and some transitions that just leave you scratching your head Ė and maybe rubbing your back.
No question does it live up to its billing. It is far, far, far from smooth but had enough going for it thrill-wise for me to take that as part of the experience. Really, in the front, it was never downright painful, and I wasnít regretting buying that second ticket. What I figured Iíd regret was going for the bookend, and after exiting and reentering, I went for the last row.
There I found the last three rows roped off (actually, the gates were zip-tied shut), but the attendant said the rows were fine to sit in; Iíd just have to swing around. With some time before dispatch, I inquired about how bad the back was. I fought back the ďwell, duhĒ in my head when she said it was the roughest place to sit, but her assessment became clear when she said she doesnít sit back there anymore. I tried my best to keep an opened mind.
The open mind was quickly replaced by brain trauma as, save for the fantastic whipping over the top of the lift hill into one of the most hair-raising first drops, the rest of the repeat ride was pretty much a nightmare. I had to spend the entire circuit bracing myself, and I could feel the bruises pilling up. The brakes were a huge relief, and when I unloaded, the attendant asked how bad it was. I was still coming to my senses, but I said something to the effect of, pretty bad, though not the worst. Iím glad I did it, but Iíd be sticking to the front for any hypothetical future visits.
As for the overall assessment, judging it primarily on the front seat ride, it stands with Pepsi Max as probably a shadow of its former self, but still a hell of a coaster to reckon with. It shared its hilltop ejections with Magnum and high-speed careening with Pepsi Max, and ended up close to the latter in its rank. Mostly due to its enhanced roughness and blander surroundings, I couldnít put it as high, but itís still in my top third of coasters, 7th out of almost 40 Arrow coasters, and an honorable mention as one of the most sought-after coasters Iíve ever ridden.
Having found the excursion completely worth it, I headed out after a quick bite and hit the road back to Vegas. A moment of surreal coincidence hit me as the Eagleís classic Desperado came on the radio as I pulled out of the casino lot and onto the interstate. I couldnít help but smile, and I shook my head as I enjoyed the serendipity. ďYou ain't gettin' no younger,Ē indeed.
It was an easy trip back into town, and I dropped off the car after an extended side trip to find a gas station near the airport. It was still a few hours until my flight Ė the jaunt barely took more than two hours, so I set up shop at my gate and enjoyed some free internet. After some time, I was aboard, and even more quickly back to San Jose and back home Ė probably the most relieved Iíve ever been for a trip to be over.
Las Vegas is an interesting town, and no doubt it has at least something for anyone looking to have some fun. I canít say Iím about to rush back anytime soon Ė or that Iíll likely ever find myself on these three rides ever again. But Iím glad I finally could make the trip, and could see for myself Ė both with the coasters and with the city itself Ė what all the fuss is about.