Kemah, Texas. Sleepy little bayside community for many years until the Boardwalk happened. Now it's one of the area's most-visited attractions, with several restaurants, shops, and a handful of rides. Most of the rides are the kind that appeal to families, even those with small children. With one exception:
From just about any angle, it looks pretty small. Long-time Houstonians usually hark back to their youth with statements like, "Aw, that ain't nothing like the old Cyclone was!" or some other such remark, referring to the Texas Cyclone, the rite-of-passage coaster in Houston from 1976 until its closure in 2005. What those folks don't realize is that Boardwalk Bullet is actually bigger than Texas Cyclone was. It's taller, longer, faster... and wilder.
See that little house? There's a long story about why it's still there, which I won't go into, but suffice to say that the coaster had to be built around it. The Boardwalk wanted a coaster that would be "bigger than the Cyclone" (which was still open at the time), but they had less than an acre of land to work with, in a tiny L-shaped plot. Luckily, they contacted The Gravity Group to do the design, a firm already well-versed in doing things that were considered "impossible" for a wood coaster. Some folks just love a challenge.
So how do you get a large coaster on a tiny piece of land bordered by buildings north and south, a road to the west and a body of water to the east? You abandon the traditional structure of flying buttresses sticking out around the turns and pull everything in to the center. You run the lift hill up the longest line you can get on the lot, then run the layout around a maelstrom of corners. You get thrills from wild, low-to-the-ground elements and surprise direction changes rather than big drops. You encase most of the layout within the structure to hide the true nature of the ride from onlookers. In short, you throw out everything you'd expect and stuff it full of the unexpected. It totally works.
The lift is the most normal thing on the ride and even it is a bit special. If the second train isn't back safely in the station, the lift will drastically slow down and wait for the other train to clear. It gives you a chance to take in the sights of the rest of the Boardwalk and the marina. Galveston Bay is behind you at this point and even though the coaster comes just a few inches from the water at several points, you won't notice it. You'll be too busy trying to figure out the mayhem.
At the top of the lift, there's a tight corner because you've reached the edge of a road and you can't go anywhere but around to face a new direction. That leads to this drop, which as you can tell from the picture above, looks pretty tame. Looks can be deceiving, though.
Firstly, it looks a LOT taller from up here. Secondly, the drop isn't even straight... but you might as well just forget about looking for any straight track from here on. Thirdly, that road is in the way again and WHERE THE HELL ARE WE GOING? There's a turn, but everything is blocked by the dense structure. At least, this is what the folks in the front of the train are thinking... the folks in the back have been launched into the air and are probably more concerned with whether or not their butts will come back down in the seat any time soon.
Around the corner at blistering speed, train shaking, people screaming, and when the turn radius finally lets you see where you're going, you're faced with a little speed bump and a wicked change in direction, all stuffed in a tunnel of flying support beams. Nowhere from outside the ride can you see this and first-time riders are always caught off-guard. Even after the Boardwalk did extensive work and re-tracking to smooth this section out a little, this one-two punch is one of the most intense, utterly effective, OMFG moments on any wooden coaster anywhere. It's deliciously insane and it's all done in less than one second. Seriously. It takes several rides to even figure out what happens here - the first several times is just going to be a "dafuq did we just do?" But you won't have time to even think about it until the ride is over, because you've rocketed out of the structure into the sunlight and are racing around the first of three big turns by the bay.
True to The Gravity Group's reputation, though, it's not just a turn. It's a turn filled with little humps, undulations, changes in banking, and it's all done at breakneck speed. God forbid there should be a moment to catch your breath or anything!
After racing back to the other end of the lot and giving the front-of-the-train riders a ridiculously intense moment of "ejector airtime" just before a hairpin left turn, there's a brief pause before the second of the three drops happens. Just like the first, this drop isn't exactly straight and the bottom is shielded from view by the structure. At night, this section is particularly disorienting, since this portion of the ride isn't lit.
The second drop leads to a bunny hop and then races straight at Galveston Bay, only to lay over on its side, almost 90degrees of banking, and turn around again. The picture above shows the brilliance of pulling the support structure inward rather than outward, allowing the track to go right up to the water's edge. You won't really notice this while riding, though, since you're still hauling serious ass and the Salt Grass Steakhouse is RIGHT IN THE WAY. The clearance there is so close that a notch had to be cut out of one of the handrails to make room for the corner of the restaurant. Surprisingly, restaurant patrons can barely hear the coaster, even as it roars by just inches from the window. But none of that matters. We're only halfway through this ride.
After the near-miss with the steakhouse, there's a hop over the queue line (which makes folks in line really think twice about this whole thing as the train roars over their heads, shaking the whole structure with a deafening roar) and another hill which ends in yet another hairpin turn at the boundary line, which gets us to the third of the three drops. Again, this one isn't straight and you can't see the bottom. I sense a theme here. This is the weirdest of the three, though, as you can see that it curves left, but as soon as you're under the loading station, it curves right again, throws in another bunny hop, then races back into the sun for the third trip around by the bay. Oh, and for those of you who like to do funny faces, the section under the station is where they take your on-ride photo. It's worth a visit to the photo booth just to look at the incoming pictures and pick out the first-time riders. They're the ones with the wild eyes and the death grip on the bar.
Several more turns and hills are in store, almost all of them buried inside the structure where they can't be seen from the outside. This is a coaster that hides its secrets well. It's also a coaster that is truly modern in its design. Old-school wood coaster design was simply to pack in as many drops as possible, using the freefall feeling to generate thrills. The aforementioned Texas Cyclone was just that, even though it was also a twister. Modern designs, however, are making use of advanced computing, better trains, and decades of knowledge that can give a small park with a small piece of land the ability to "play with the big boys" and have a truly outstanding, thrilling ride. It's not about drops here, it's about non-stop mayhem, surprises, intensity, and sustained thrill... and after my more than 750 rides on it (so far), it's still a legitimate blast.
Oh, and I should mention that if you want to up the thrills even more, ride it right after a good rain. When it's wet, it's a whole new beast altogether.