Aberdeen, Hong Kong
Friday, February 8th, 2013
Weather: Cloudy with some light rain, windy, 60
A trip to another renowned theme park the next day is the perfect way to avoiding dwelling on not being at Disneyland anymore. Forgoing the unnecessary second day there gave us a chance to hit this highly regarded park, and we were eager to see how this aquatic-tilted attraction mixed traditional thrills with animal encounters.
I suppose Sea World is the obvious analogue here, but the cultural differences and unmatched geographical placement of Ocean World put it in a category beyond the mix of rides and marine life we're used to from the American chain. I'll get to the jaw-droppingly absurd location of the park soon, but first we had to get there.
In a stroke of luck, we had seen signs indicating the Ocean World bus at the Admiralty station while sightseeing on our first day. We had no idea if this was the most effective way of getting to the park, but we were planning on taking public transport, and having heard a bus is required, it seemed like the way to go.
Like the day before, we left with all kinds of time to spare. We didn't know what we needed to do to coordinate the bus, but it was easy enough to follow the signs in the metro station to the proper exit. It took just a second when we got up to the street to see a booth plastered in Ocean Park ads, and there were even a few folks in front of it.
Joining the line, we could see that it was selling both bus and park tickets, and would be open for business in just a few minutes. Along the curb were a series of city buses with the route number for the park, ready to go, and we were pleased with how easy this would be. Already with park tickets ($40 each, pre-purchased online), we just needed to pay for the ride, and the ticket agent even offered us the round-trip tickets we would need.
Moments later we climbed aboard the bus, and soon after that, it headed out and we were zipping around the city streets. We quickly traded spotless skyscrapers for apartments looking a bit more shabby than what we had seen so far, and the final part of the drive was through an extended tunnel underneath the mountains, leading to the back of the island.
There was still some time until the park opened, and we joined a small but growing crowd behind the small series of turnstiles. It was a good chance to eat our portable 7-Eleven breakfast (something we would sorely miss upon returning home), and we finally were able to give the park map a good study.
The park is essentially split in two, with half just beyond the gates in front of us, at this level. The other portion is on the top of the mountain, overlooking the bay, and completely unseen from the entry. It's accessed by the aforementioned gondola, as well as a more direct and less scenic inclined railway that climbs within the mountain itself.
Both sections had scads of animal encounters, though topside was home to the majority of the adult rides. There was a kid friendly area down here, but it wasn't on our to do list. Our initial targets were some of the most scenically placed coasters in the world.
To my great disappointment, there would be one less for us to ride. With no indication other than its name listed on the "Not operating today", the Mine Train was sadly closed. It may not have been the most thrilling of rides, but its placement was unsurpassed, and probably afforded the best opportunity for soaking in the spectacular views. Add to that the slight hit to my count, and it was hard not to be bummed.
In its stead, we were looking at a perilously perched B&M floorless coaster, a mildly rousing Mack powered coaster next door, and an aging but iconic Arrow looping coaster that sprawled up and down the mountain side on the peninsula's opposite face. Along with easily a dozen or more habitats and aquariums, there was little doubt we'd be kept busy.
Into the queue, the line of people ahead was still a ways back from the station. There was a disappointing lack of activity, and after a couple confused minutes, word came that there was a wind hold keeping the ride offline. Given the grey, blustery weather, this surprised no one, but we were a little bothered that we had walked all the way back here.
Doubling back to the center of the lower section, we had to settle for the Summit Express to reach the peak. Much of the mild frustration was abated when we got in line and were able to take in the elaborate Jules Verve treatment. Imposing faux-riveted steel surrounded us, and the illusion of an impending submarine voyage was rather convincing. I suppose it was more like we were surfacing rather than submerging, but we were eager to set sail either way.
The limited uphill capacity resulted in us needing to wait for an extra cycle, but these railways fortunately run in pairs to counterbalance, so it was only a couple minutes. Being among the first to board, we selfishly snagged one of the few benches and made the smooth climb. The simulated underwater views on an overhead LCD screen were a notable touch.
The only down side was it didn't lead to an operating coaster. For a moment we wondered if we were jinxed, and only a minute after we saw Arctic Blast zip by with passengers aboard, we bailed and headed there. We walked right into the station not more than 50 yards away and caught the still loading single train.
Having seen Hair Raiser in action while still aboard, we went right back to it and entered the brightly colored queue. From there we could really feel the wind that was still keeping the gondolas shuttered, and we were able to get our first real taste of how absurdly placed this coaster is. Not only does the course of the ride take place on a cliffside some 500+ feet above the harbor below, but once we got into the station, we could see that the lift climbed a sheer rock wall to the absolute highest point in the park.
The train makes a left turn out of the station and immediately begins its steep and scenic climb. Worth the price of admission, the views are as stunning as any amusement ride can afford, and be warned that the sharp drop will take you by surprise as you continue to take it in. While not directly below you, the pitch might be closer than you are comfortable with, and you can easily lose your bearings as the series of flips and spins are executed with riders considerably exposed.
As a source of thrills, the short course provides about what you might expect from this model of coaster. It's a decent enough rush, though nothing an intermediate coaster rider with a visit to almost any Six Flags park under their belt would be troubled by. It does sport some noticeable vibration, almost bordering on roughness. I found it mildly unpleasant, but we were up front, so I'd be wary about a spin in the back. Still, it remained a wildly unique experience, and easily positive on the whole. You won't soon forget what you see.
Unlike the rather compact and easily accessible lower portion, this part of the park sprawled up, down, and around the crest, often with labyrinthine pathways. It behooves you to be efficient about touring the park, and to that end we didn't rush of for the next coaster and instead took in some a few of the first animal attractions of the day.
The most memorable sighting was an impromptu encounter with a stunning snowy owl, perched on a handler's arm mere feet from where we were sitting. Surprisingly serene, I've never seen an animal that appeared to be so happy about living in captivity. Then again, that might just be what their faces look like.
Next door was the arctic fox den. While much smaller in size, it did max out on the cuteness scale as there were several of these fuzzy white guys scampering about in their smallish enclosure. Finally, a trip to the south pole had us eyeing a terrific penguin exhibit. Not just pools on both sides, the floor was even made of paneled glass in spots, allowing views of darting penguins below our feet. So far we were impressed with the facilities - really seemed on par with any of the better aquariums we've been to, though we could have done without seemingly every attraction letting out into a souvenir shop.
Moving on, we began to descend (though no path goes solely up or down), and we came to the main crossroads connecting the various levels of this upper half. I was still subtly aiming for the Dragon, the last (running) coaster, but we were fine to make some stops along the way. At this intersection is the observation tower, a handy landmark and a means of getting to eye quite a large chunk of the island itself.
After the short wait and the pleasant ride, we tried to decipher the confusing park map, and tried to plot a direct path to the Dragon. I will stress it again, nothing in this half on the park is direct, and we spent our entire visit up here with more than a vague sense of disorientation.
The route I devised took us across the top of the dolphin stadium, and it just happened to have a show about to start. We were just as interested in exiting quickly as we were in the show itself, so we found some seats just shy of the top, and watched dolphins flip, sea lions wave and blow kisses, and the usual repertoire of antics you'd expect from these marine mammals. It was worth the pause, but we were okay to miss the last few acrobatics to stay ahead of the sizable audience.
As may happen to you if you share this strange hobby, riding this coaster was a serious throwback for me. Worthy or not, it was featured on one coaster program or another as particularly notable. Perhaps only for the stunning setting it’s famous, though I couldn’t deny how it impressive that was as I approached. Having learned about it almost two decades ago just made the entire experience that much more surreal.
One of only a dozen or so custom versions still in operation, it came about in Arrow’s heyday, and is suitably similar in character to many we are familiar with from the late 70s and 80s. It may lack the sprawling layout of rides like Loch Ness Monster and Dragon Mountain (two of my favorites from the era), but that it diverges greatly from the increasingly common corkscrew clones of the day was surely a treat for its initial riders.
Today, it certainly isn’t a cookie cutter, but it does share in the famed Arrow roughness. Chalk it up to bad genes, bad maintenance, or the unkind seaside locale, the source didn’t matter much as I was equal parts wary and excited as I joined the queue. I was relieved to be able to go right into the station, and there I saw it empty, with a loaded train about to roll. You can understand why I was a bit confused when they asked me to board, especially when I saw all but the second row were chained off.
In a rather odd station configuration, they had me approach the train in the second row, and then walk back alongside to an open seat towards the back. I awkwardly handed my bag to an attendant after he reopened the harnesses in the car for me, and I hopped in. It worked out fine in the end, though I felt a little bad for holding everyone up. I would have happily waited for the next train, if only to get oriented.
Instead, we crawled out of the station and up the first lift. It drops off slightly and turns into a flat stretch, interestingly back towards the root of the station, and provides for some amazing views. The mountainside here isn’t quite as sheer as with Hair Raiser, but the harbor, islands, and towns laid out below are a sight to see. You’re given just enough time to think, “Hey, this isn’t so bad” and then you’re immediately put through the wringer.
The sweeping yet under-banked first drop puts you right into a vertical loop, and a rightward U-turn lines you up for the signature loop and sidewinder combo. An upward helix is followed by a downward one, and another turn sends you into the second lift. Here you’re given a chance to recover, and you’re back up the hillside and then into the station after a few mild turns.
I wouldn’t say the experience is entirely harrowing, but it is as jarring as you’d expect from a coaster of this ilk. It is certainly unfortunate, though easily worth a ride for someone as insistent as me. For your average thrill-seeker, it’s worth considering, especially if you don’t mind getting jostled. If nothing else, I was able to enjoy the scenic vantage point the ride provides, as well as experience a ride that’s been on my to-do list for about as long as I’ve had one.
Ready for a break, I found Megan just outside the restaurant, and she informed me that it was table service. After briefly considering the other cheaper, quicker options in the area, we decided that a warm, sheltered respite with some good food was exactly what we were in the mood for. Inside Cafe Ocean, we found a rather nice setting, with a huge window overlooking the harbor below. We went with combos and enjoyed more of the local food. The hot tea was as welcome as the meal at this point, and we savored being out of the elements a bit longer.
Back up by Dragon, I conceded that if there was ever a park where the Ferris Wheel was worth a ride, it would be this one. We would be looking at our longest wait of the day so far, but the small crowd in front of us slowly shrank, and we were aboard in about 10 minutes or so. As we anticipated, it was a perch barely approached by even the best Ferris Wheel placement and I spent the ride alternating between snapping pictures and remembering to lift my jaw.
Continuing up the hillside, we made it to the jellyfish exhibit, Sea Jelly Specular. We think fondly of the tanks at the Monterrey Aquarium back home, and this seemed to be an entire facility dedicated to these hypnotizing invertebrates. Species of all different sizes and shapes and colors rhythmically pulsed all around, and it was easy to be entranced by the simple yet fascinating creatures.
Cutting clear across the park, we didn’t want to miss out on the Pacific Wharf. Partly because of the location of the exhibit on a high bluff over looking the park itself, and partly for a simulated visit back to our neck of the woods, we made the extended hike over to it. Once there we were able to take in the views once more, and visit with some of the fauna we’re more than familiar with in Northern California. The dockside treatment was more than fitting, and we were almost taken back to Santa Cruz, where we see seals and sea lions in their natural habitat. It was great to see these transplants, and the underwater viewing areas were a treat that we don’t have back home.
Back almost to where we started on the map, we would soon be back to where we started our day. Any frustration was quickly forgotten when we climbed into our capsule and were flung out onto the descending wire, and went from one perilously perched tower to another. I know I sound like a broken record, but every view we had been afforded to this point in the day absolutely paled in comparison to what this ride provides. It was worth the price of admission twice over.
Although pretty much all the adult rides were behind (i.e., above) us, we still had plenty we wanted to see and do down here at the base. That almost entirely revolved around animals, and we started off with a marquee exhibit, the Giant Panda Adventure. It was one of a few stops in the Amazing Asian Animals section nearby, and we were excited to get a glimpse at animals as iconic as they are rare.
Giant Pandas are not easy to cross paths with. You can pretty much forget running into them in the wild, and only a select number of zoos in the world are able to show them off. Maybe if, as a species, they were more willing to procreate, I’d have seen them more frequently. So far my sightings were limited to Zoo Atlanta and the San Diego Zoo, and I was excited to get a glimpse here.
Also in the area were a few other interesting animals, including the ill-named red pandas (related to weasels, skunks and raccoons, there’s no relation to the bears, though they’re almost as endangered), as well as rather lively otters, in addition to stoic and ominous alligators amongst some carp and other fish. Out of the greenhouse, next is a shockingly thorough exhibit on goldfish. Goldfish Treasures offers tank after tank and easily dozens of different species of the ubiquitous fish, and most are far more bizarre and exotic looking than what’s on display at the average dentist’s office.
We briefly considered working our way to the very back of the lower park, but the plethora of kids rides had us thinking better of it. Seeing that a showing of Emperors of the Sky was approaching, and Megan actually seemed interested in a bird show, we would head there after a quick diversion to the Emerald Trail. It was described vaguely in the map, and as we climbed the scenic but otherwise uneventful pathways, we wondered why it was even on the map at all. There was a fun suspension bridge, and some temple themeing, but the purpose of each was entirely lost on us.
Back down the hillside, we joined the short line outside the Amazing Bird Theater, only hoping it would live up to its name. We were let into the small courtyard with plenty of time before the show, enjoyed the respite and plotted out the rest of our waning day. Once the show was underway, we were able to catch more of the plot than we cared to: a logger learning the importance of nature from some sort of spirit tree. All I cared about was seeing some impressive birds, and we did get that. It was a pretty constant stream of eagles, falcons, parrots, vultures, owls, and many more, and the intimate venue provided some wonderfully close views. I do want to state, for the record, that Megan was very brave through the entire show.
The approaching 7pm closing didn’t leave us with much time, though there wasn’t too much else we needed to get to. We wanted to allot plenty of time for both the Sichuan Treasures and the Grand Aquarium, so we headed to these next. The first stop was a bit of a disappointment, as the handful of enclosures, supposedly with Giant Pandas, either had the animals backstage or completely hidden. In fact, there wasn’t much to see at all.
Now in the last hour of the day, we would set ourselves up well to see a couple more shows, one including acrobats, and the other being the capstone nighttime show, Symbio, in the newly minted lagoon. For a moment we considered scouting out spots for the latter far in advance, World of Color style, but we took our chances to get in the other one.
We would be glad we did, and we found some benches in the Waterfront Plaza still a bit in advance of the show. The backdrop would be some festive New Year decorations, and once they started to clear out the area we saw we had a front row seat. I momentarily considered my fear of audience participation, but rightfully figured they weren’t going to ask anyone from the audience to join in the flipping and tumbling.
The show let out 15 minutes before the 7pm closing, which was when Symbio was scheduled. We were a little worried we might have lost prime viewing spots by taking in this earlier performance first, but as we approached the Aqua City Lagoon, we were surprised to see it was as quiet as it was an hour ago. It took no effort to find an open railing, and with the wet weather gear we’d been sporting all day, saw no reason not to go for the front row.
There’s always some excitement waiting for a nighttime spectacular, and while we weren’t expecting anything on par with Disney’s best, we were still pleased with our front-and-center location. The fountain at the center of the lagoon is active throughout the day, and even when there isn’t a show, it’s pretty entertaining. The spotlight and sound towers above us were good signs, as were what looked like pyrotechnic tubes just in front of the railing.
At the top of the hour, the lights dimmed, and the story began to unfold. Plot-wise, there’s not much to concern yourself with. Two ancient dragons, fire and ice, have been dueling since the beginning of time, and ultimately some third-party spirit (god, maybe?) implores them to join forces for the betterment of the universe. They oblige in the end, but the bulk of the show is a series of loud and bright effects as they slug it out.
The centerpiece is the aforementioned fountain, which becomes a 360 projection screen with streaking images of the dragons. Beyond it, and just feet from onlookers are additional water jets, flame throwers, and launching pads for low-level fireworks. Keep in mind, we were as close as humanly possible, but while the show may lack the grand scale width of World of Color, if more than made up for it with proximity. You are right on top of the action, frighteningly so when the fireworks go off and the billowing flames threaten the integrity of your outerwear.
We weren’t too interested in another round of shopping after Disneyland the day before, so we thought it best to stay ahead of the departing crowd and found ourselves among the first to exit the park. From there it was a quick trip through the plaza and down the escalator to the transportation area. There we found a string of the city buses we needed, and the line still within its inadequate queue.
It was quickly beyond its capacity and wound down the sidewalk, but we were shortly on a bus and ready to head back downtown, despite some confusion between the crowd controllers and our driver. Fortunately we were already aboard, and were in no special hurry considering that we had gotten seats. Once out of mild chaos, it was an otherwise peaceful and convenient drive to the subway station, and we had no trouble catching a train back underneath the harbor to our hotel.
We would have one final day for sightseeing, and we used it wisely, touring some of the more impressive museums, temples, and gardens, all amid the pre-New Year excitement. Our departure was the following morning, and while we were sad to be leaving Hong Kong, we were grateful to have had the chance to visit, and satisfied with our quick tour. Our itinerary may have been more amusement park heavy than some others, but there’s no doubt Hong Kong loves its parks, and it’s pretty easy to see why.
Besides, no one in the world was about to feel bad for us, since we were really just starting the adventure. We were on our way to the first of three stops in Thailand, and somehow we would spend the 10 days in country without a single trip to an amusement park. I hope that’s at least as much a sign of the diversity of our interests, but I fear it may also be an indictment of the quality of their few parks.
There is no doubt Ocean Park is worthy of a visit, and despite the attendance numbers it gets annually, we still managed to be surprised by all it had to offer. The fact that it mixes animals with thrills is not exactly a novel concept, but how these attractions are presented is on par with the best zoos and aquariums we’ve come across, and the rides are remarkably implemented. I cannot overstate how this park is a one-of-a-kind experience, and it compliments and contrasts Disneyland in that regard quite nicely.
I did not expect to end our quick park tour unsure of which I preferred. While the differences between the two are obvious, it can be hard to compare two endeavors that offer rather divergent experiences. I don’t think I can compare them, and a straight comparison probably isn’t even fair. If anything, visiting these two great parks consecutively is a great way to revel in the diversity of the modern theme park. What I’m left with instead is the thought that our day at Hong Kong Disneyland was special because of what was familiar about it, and we left Ocean Park blown away by how it was unlike any park we’ve ever seen.