A Visit to Ocean Park (香港海洋公园)

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It was certainly a different Ocean Park (www.OceanPark.hk) that I visited this year as part of the IAAPA Asian Expo. My last visit was in 2006 and things have changed, in the ten years since my last visit the venerable Asian park has undergone a metamorphosis. Upon entering Ocean Park one notices right away that the property looks fresher than it ever did. The main gate was moved to the front and offers beautiful fountains and animal exhibits. The new “old Hong Kong” area great and has a fantastic assortment of food, I had noodles at Chan’s Noodle. As guests relax and enjoy lunch they can take in the beautiful Wood Design carousel.

Tom Mehrmann, the Chief Executive at Ocean Park, told me, about the thought process behind the change, “[The] goals were to stay true to Ocean Park core values, to put more ‘Ocean’ into Ocean Park, to focus on differential values (location, animals, Hong Kong essence) offered by the Park, be culturally relevant to the markets we serve, work with the strength of our generational value (those who came as kids were now bringing their kids), and ensure we did not lose site of the fact that the difference is real and Ocean Park should remain focused on Conservation, Education and Entertainment.”

After lunch I wanted to head to the south end of the property. Park-goers now choose between two ways to get to the back of the park. One is a classic, the Cable Car, which offers unparalleled views of the park as it runs along 1.5 km (.93 mile) of cable. This lengthy sky ride attraction stretches over the hills and Deep Water Bay. The other is an amazing feet of engineering, the Ocean Express. This is a funicular that tunnels through the mountain, it is 1.3 km (.8 miles) long and 71,300 square meters (233,923 square feet) of earth were excavated in order to construct the ride. The time and expense that must have gone into this project is astounding.

Tom told me that engineering the Ocean Express was indeed a complicated process. He said, “We had to blast on the site, to remove large sections of rock each morning, then send the rock to an onsite rock crusher, which was then placed on a conveyor that went from the top of our site (122 meters [400 feet] above sea level) to the receiving barges waiting below to haul the soil and rock away for fill projects in China. Each morning when the blasting was done, the animals that were considered sensitive to ground vibration were trained to position in areas that would not be affected by the blasts to ensure their health and well-being. The animal keepers and curators did an outstanding job ensuring the development work did not impact the animals and introduced some innovative and meaningful operant conditioning to ensure the animals were not affected.” A picture of the breakthrough ceremony (below) shows just how large of endeavor this project was.

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I know that a funicular is not as sexy as a roller coaster, but the Ocean Express truly is an amazing piece of engineering. On the back side of the park one sees the new Thrill Mountain area, which offers several new attractions. The best of these is a B&M floorless coaster, the Hair Raiser, which has a completely custom layout. The lift hill runs up along a cliff and the ride dives back down, through a uniquely-shaped loop. The biggest surprise of the layout is the bunny hop which generates a lot of airtime and the unique banked turn right before you twist back into the brakes. On the tamer side of things, the North and South Pole exhibits showcase a great collection of cold-weather animals and allow guests to watch the animals in a great habitat.

The park still has a lot of charm in the older (lower) area of the park with classics like an early 1980’s Arrow looping coaster, a Huss Pirate, Huss Condor, and Huss Enterprise. With its sea life displays, shows, and collection of rides Ocean Park has certainly gone from a great local enterprise to a world-class amusement park. Many thought that with “the mouse” opening across town the park would suffer. However, nearly a decade later the property has reinvented itself by going back to its roots and offering a day that combines the best sea life displays with exciting rides, and provides its guests with a unique experience. Ocean Park truly is Hong Kong’s theme park.

-AFS

A New Carowinds

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When I went to Carowinds (www.carowinds.com) this year to check out our new Slingshot installation I not only enjoyed a thrilling experience, I saw a fresh take on some things make this industry great.  Not a big surprise, but I still feel that the Slingshot is one of the best thrills out there.  Going from ground level to nearly 300 feet in a matter of seconds is quite a rush.  It is amazing to see the world unfold in front of you.  Of course, when you ride the Slingshot the park now the world unfolds with something standing as tall as you- Fury 325.  Carowinds and B&M hit a home run with this ride.  It does everything a giga coaster should (and more).  I know there are many devotees of the silver and blue Millennium Force at Cedar Fair’s flagship property, but to me Fury just does everything better.

The “out” run showcases the ride’s speed as it flies over some wonderfully-shaped curves and rises into the treble clef. This element, shaped like the musical note, dives through a tunnel and here the airtime begins.  There are several great moments as-well-as a helix that threads the needle through the ride’s support structure.

But, Fury was not the only pleasant surprise.  The park also was showcasing their Taste of the Carolinas.  This food festival focused on regional food and beer.  Not only was it a great alternative to the burgers and hot dog fare I am used to, it tasted fantastic.  From main courses to dessert, everything was several steps above what I have come to expect from amusement park food.  In addition, it was served in reasonable amounts, so I could sample different things as opposed to being committed to one dish served the size of a table.

The final touch was the new front gate, which was totally rebuilt for the 2015 season.  Fury 325 wraps itself around and through the entrance plaza, offerings park-goers a tantalizing glimpse of the thrills that lie inside.

All-in-all our visit to Carowinds was a much different one than our last one in 2003.  It has certainly re-defined itself in the market and we look forward to seeing what is ahead for this unique property that straddles a state line.

-AFS

Skycoastin’ in the U.K. (Blackpool & Oakwood)

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One of the best perks of working for Ride Entertainment Group is all of the International Travel that our team gets to experience while working on various projects. In early April, our Skycoaster® team visited the two Skycoaster® Sites in the United Kingdom- South Pier in Blackpool, England; and Oakwood in Narberth, Wales. After landing at London Heathrow, we made the 4 hour drive north and west to Blackpool.

The City of Blackpool can best be described as the Coney Island of the UK. With a mile long promenade, three piers, an endless assortment of arcades and attractions (including the iconic Blackpool Tower), and of course Blackpool Pleasure Beach with its 42 acres of intertwined rides, shows, and attractions, there is quite a bit to do and see in this resort town on the Irish Sea. The Skycoaster® on South Pier has one of the all-time great locations, perched on the southern edge of the pier over 30 feet above the crashing surf. Flyers are winched up over the bustling Fun Fair below and then soar over the many onlookers and out over the edge of the pier simulating the flight of a seagull! The amazing tidal force in Blackpool adds to the mystique of the location as the beach goes from a width of ½ mile to crashing surf in less than 45 minutes. Pleasure Beach’s eclectic mix of modern and classic rides and attractions is unmatched. Here guests can enjoy rare/unique attractions like the Grand National (mobius-loop racing woodie), Steeplechase, Valhalla, The Big One, Ghost Train, and River Caves among many other crowd favorites. It has probably the closest feel to what Coney Island, NY was like in the 1950s in terms of attraction density/variety.

Meanwhile, near the small town of Narberth, Wales (which some say registers a greater population of Sheep than Humans), lies Oakwood- the largest theme park in the Southwestern United Kingdom. Among its impressive roster of attractions are Megafobia (the largest wooden coaster in the UK), Speed: No Limits (an impressive Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter), and Treetops (a Zierer Family Tivoli Coaster hidden deep in a grove of tall pine trees). Vertigo is the park’s 140’ Skycoaster® and was given a prominent location right in the center of the property. Guests can view flyers thrilling it up on Europe’s tallest Skycoaster® from many unique vantage points.

From Oakwood it was a quick trip south to the seaside town of Tenby for some amazing pub fare and wandering the streets before making the 4 hour drive back to London Heathrow.

-MR

When It Isn’t At Auto Zone

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April 7, 2015

If you are looking for parts for an old car, you can look at Auto Zone, NAPA or a lot of specialty dealers online.  This is true for a lot of machines of various ages.  But, what if you need parts for a carousel?  You cannot exactly check out Target’s automotive section in hopes that you will come across a new center bearing and sweeps.

This was the crux of the issue that our Operations Team faced when refurbishing the Forest Park Carousel this winter. They found out last year that the carousel, which dates from 1890 (frame) and 1903 (horses), had several parts that needed updating.  But, these parts were hand-cast over a century ago and had to be custom-created for the carousel.  They called Todd Goings of Carousels and Carvings, a carousel refurbishment company from Ohio, and worked with him to have the specialty parts made.

One difficulty in repairing a carousel is that the machine is a living, breathing thing.  You remember that children’s song, “The leg bone’s connected to the ankle bone,” etc?  A carousel is a lot like that.  EVERYTHING interconnected and hung off of the center pole.  This means that when David, Daeshawn and our team needed to get to pieces at the center of the ride, everything had to come off.

Therefore, our team was charged with taking apart the entire Forest Park Carousel, carefully storing and securing the horses, each a piece of invaluable artwork by themselves, and painstakingly tearing down the ride structure.  Once the ride was apart our team got at the guts of the carousel.  Parts like the top bearing, cranks, sweeps, and commutator were repaired or replaced in order to give the ride proper TLC.  It was one of the single-largest investments that the Forest Park Carousel has seen since it was moved to Queens in 1973, and it has never run better.  You can see more of the refurbishment in Ed Wendell’s video, embedded below.

David Galst, the head of the Ride Entertainment Operations Division, said, “By performing this major rehabilitation, this timeless piece of magical art and master craftsmanship should be able to spin for decades to come.”  The impressive thing is that our team not only refurbished the carousel this winter, they were also simultaneously working to get all of our other parks and attractions ready to open.

We could not be prouder because this refurbishment really symbolizes where the Ride Entertainment Operations Division has come in only three years.  In the spring of 2012 we were readying the Forest Park Carousel to open for the first time in years and the Flushing Meadow’s Carousel to spin once more.  In just a few years we have created an amusement park around the Flushing Meadows Carousel, the Forest Park Carousel has received national recognition and become a New York City Historic Landmark, we opened a carousel in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, begun operating the Greenway Carousel in Boston, and opened the first amusement park that Staten Island has seen in decades.  All-in-all our operations team is filled with people who have become stars and I certainly expect great things of them in the coming years.

-AFS

Globe Trotting to India

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February 23, 2015

It was a great week in India at the IAAPI show in Mumbai. We saw several old industry friends and met a lot of potential customers from all around the country. Much like when we started working in China nearly 15 years ago, there is a feeling of excitement and potential for the amusement industry to grow here. The most famous park to outsiders is probably the Adlabs property, which opened in 2013 with a large collection of rides, including their signature attraction Nitro, a looping coaster from B&M. Visiting India is certainly an interesting experience and like nothing I had ever been a part of before. Horns blare everywhere you go, the roads are clogged with a combination of motorcycles, scooters, Tuk Tuks (the 3-wheeled, open-air carriages), small taxis and other vehicles of all sizes. The range of wealth in the city, one of 22 million, is staggering, and is not like anything I have ever really come across. With the country’s burgeoning middle class we hope that a rising tide will float boats from all classes of people and that Ride Entertainment will be there as the amusement industry becomes a part of the fabric of their entertainment culture.

-AFS

Learning to Fly

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December 4, 2014

It is November 28, one week after IAAPA and I am traveling on what feels like my second car, a Southwest Airlines 737. Instead of just having my laptop out I am trying to juggle my sleeping daughter and my computer on my lap, I think I somehow found room for each. It was a very exciting show for Ride Entertainment as we got to show off our newest ride, the AirSurfer (www.AirSurferEntertainment.com). But, we also had a ton of interest in tried and true amusement rides like Gerstlauer coasters and Funtime StarFlyers.

It is an interesting time to be in the industry. I feel like we are seeing some amazing traditional attractions popping up. Some roller coasters, like Wicked Cyclone at Six Flags New England and Fury 325 at Carowinds are classic coaster designs, others like FireChaser Express at Dollywood and the new Baron 1898 at Efteling are great themed attractions, while still others like Guardian at Canada’s Wonderland has brought technology into its rightful place in the guest experience. Some of you may be old enough to remember the first generation of in-park technology in the late 80’s and early 90’s where computer-generated experiences were going to replace coasters, but somehow never did. In some of those rides the idea was ahead of the technology, but as Spiderman at IOA showed us many years ago, there can be a perfect experience at the confluence of technology and thrills.

I guess this is why we are so excited about the AirSurfer. It will utilize technology to offer a zipline experience that no one else can do. Standing, turning, going uphill, we feel we have the best combination of amusement rides and ziplines. We look forward to seeing on of the AirSurfers up and running in 2015 or 2016, we have a ton of interest and are excited to make it happen.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, we want to say “thank you”. To our manufacturing partners, to our sale and revenue share clients, and to the customers at our parks- we appreciate all of you trusting us to sell you fun in one way or another. We always say that our best asset is our customers and we appreciate you each and every day.

-AFS

Catch the Wave

November 12, 2014- AirSurfer

October 29, 2014- The Ultimate Cutback

October 15, 2014- Like Nothing Else

September 24, 2014- Catch the Wave

The Roar for More at Fantasy Shore

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September 22, 2014

Our first season at Fantasy Shore Amusement Park has been a fun and challenging one. It is hard to believe that in early summer we began building an amusement park and a few weeks later it was up and running. The transition from parkland to amusement parks in a matter of weeks was an amazing one. Fantasy Shore (www.fantasyshorenyc.com) is our third property in the New York City area and the second, small, family amusement park we run.

David P. Galst, Managing Director of Ride Operations Group, said, “Fantasy Shore has had a terrific inaugural season. The community has welcomed us with open arms and many guests tell us that they are thrilled that Staten Island has a family amusement park to call their own. On a side-note, as a lifelong fan of the amusement park industry, I am proud to say we operate the Verrazano Viper, Staten Island’s only roller coaster!”

Chris Mercaldo, who joined the company in late winter of this year, was handed the task of getting the property up and running. He noted, “Building Fantasy Shore for the great community here on Staten Island was an incredible experience. Day after day we had people coming up to the gate around our under construction amusement park telling us how excited they were for us to open and what a great addition we would be to their community. To bring an amusement park back to the people of Staten Island was very special, and it was great on opening day to see all of the smiles on everyone’s faces and hear their laughter in the air.”

We are extremely proud of the opening of the only amusement park on Staten Island. While there are lots of exciting amusement venues across New York City, we gave the families of Staten Island a “hometown amusement park.” Everyone on the Fantasy Shore team did an amazing job of getting the park up and running, we are proud to have them as team members.

-AFS

Appreciate the Little Things

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May 22, 2014

I recently found out that the first roller coaster (really, the first ride) I sold is for sale. The “Sequoia Adventure” at Gardaland was the first production model S&S Screaming Squirrel to open and apparently Gardaland wants to get rid of it.

I can’t say I blame them, it was not a very good ride at all. It hung guests upside down too long, it could not turn so the vehicle dropped into channel track that was rough, and the coaster really did not do a heck of a lot. To me it did not matter. The day I closed that deal remains one of the happiest of my professional career. I actually stopped and thought to myself- remember how this feels. Now, a lot of sales and projects later I still get happy thinking about Gardaland buying this ride.

It also taught me something about our projects; the little victories matter as much as the big ones and they need to be celebrated. When you have your eyes set on having the next project being bigger and better than your current one you will find yourself disappointed. But, it helps if you also remember to be happy about the smaller things. For our company, it can be a myriad of little things. Just this spring we had a World War II veteran who used to operate the Forest Park Carousel stop by for a ride on the Flushing Meadows Carousel. We also were awarded the contract to supply some decorative stanchions at Six Flags America for their new Rajin’ Cajun Spinning Coaster, which we just finished installing. Last, but not least, we were able to install the embed and first section of the Cedar Point Slingshot before the park opened- even though it had been stuck in customs for over a month! All little things to be sure, but each are important in their own right. If you celebrate the small stuff it helps you appreciate the landmark events even more.

Speaking of big victories, last week we were lucky enough to open the New England SkyScreamer at Six Flags New England. It stands 403 feet above the beautiful Massachusetts tree canopy and offers some spectacular views of the Connecticut River. Check out the amazing video below and enjoy your flight!

-AFS

Light A Fire

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March 28, 2014

2 launches. 1 chain lift. Airtime hills galore. A wild mouse turn off the lift. Where do we start? Fire Chaser Express at Dollywood is just awesome. This was one of our most-anticipated 2014 rides and it definitely lived up to the hype. It was also one of the most fun attractions we have been a part of. Herschend Family Entertainment, Dollywood’s parent company, is a great partner. When they buy a ride they theme it to the hilt and Fire Chaser was not different. The ride pays homage to fire fighters across the country and is designed for families to have fun together- what a great combination.

We love this ride for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is the fact that it is just not like anything else out there. Is it a mine train? Is it a launch coaster? Is it a family coaster? Yes, it is a little bit of all three. My personal favorite part of the ride is the launch out of the station. Kids are gripping the restraints with trepidation, even their parents don’t quite know what to expect. All of the sudden, the fire lights spin red around the walls and in matter of seconds the tire drives accelerate the ride out of the station and onto the course. I really love the little figure-eight that precedes the lift. The rest of the layout is riddled with surprises and I don’t want to spoil them for you. Suffice it to say, Fire Chaser Express is an awesome family ride. If you are a ride junkie, nerd or enthusiast you need to book a ticket to Pigeon Forge. Now.

-AFS