Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, opened in summer of 2012, is a throwback to the old-school pleasure pier that used to grace the waves back many decades ago. Some of the rides, notably the chair swings, bumper cars, and ferris wheel are updated versions of those same style attractions at the original pier. Another pier from that era contained a roller coaster called "Mountain Speedway" which sat at Seawall and 22nd street. It was a wood coaster and although tall tales suggest that it was a monstrous beast of a ride, the fact remains that it was a side-friction coaster with gentle dips and turns. Tame by today's standards! The new pier, however, built a steel coaster rather than a wooden one and it's anything BUT tame.
Anticipation for this ride was high even before it opened. The Houston area lost its theme park when Astroworld closed in 2005 and the nearby Boardwalk Bullet, while a really good ride, is just one coaster. Variety is a good thing, so a steel coaster installation was welcome news, indeed.
Once the coaster's track began going up and it was identified as a Gerstlauer Euro-fighter design with a beyond-vertical drop, the anticipation became feverish. The pier's Facebook page got busy with comments. Everyone was stoked about that drop. Well, almost everyone. I'll admit that I was a bit disappointed, since I've been on a few of this brand of ride and... well.... they hurt. Being launched out of your seat is fun unless you're brought back down into that seat by having your collar bone smash into a set of shoulder bar restraints. Not fun. As happy as I was to have a new coaster to ride near my home, I figured that I'd give it a go once or twice and that would be it. But the pier had a secret that was revealed soon after: Iron Shark would be equipped without shoulder bars. Suddenly, this coaster became a hot topic on internet coaster forums and was projected to be the "sleeper hit" of the summer.
But let's face it: nice, comfy vehicles are one thing but will it be a good coaster? A computerized animation video posted to Facebook by the pier revealed that the ride would be short. That much was assumed, given the lack of space on the pier to work with, but this one is REALLY short. From the top of the hill to the brakes takes just under 20 seconds. TWENTY. SECONDS. The thing is going to be over before it even gets started, if some of the responses were to be believed. One person even complained, "I thought you were going to build a real coaster." Opening day came soon enough and everyone got a chance to see for themselves. Ya know what? It freakin' ROCKS.
First things first: the lift hill is vertical. Turn your head left or right and see how quickly you gain altitude at this angle. Better yet, look behind you for a really eerie sight of the pier waaaay down there with this blue stick of track holding you up. It doesn't take long and before you can really prepare, the little car lurches and stutters as if to gather its breath and give you time to say your prayers. It's a second that lasts an hour.
The view is fantastic. There's a Star Flyer right in front of you, then a ferris wheel, and then Galveston Bay all the way to the horizon. What you don't see, however, is the track that you're about to ride down on. It's just NOT THERE. The reason is the nose of the car you're in blocks your view and the track itself goes past vertical anyway, meaning that it gets to straight-down and then keeps curling inward. Yeah. You're wondering about that lack of shoulder bars right about now, aren't you? Too bad. Over you go.
I should probably point out here that the pier has a "no profanity" policy. I should probably also point out that if you're offended by profanity, you shouldn't stand within earshot of the Iron Shark. This seasoned coaster veteran (Iron Shark was my 553rd coaster) belted out a very staccato SHIT! as my butt left the seat and I found myself hurtling face-down, regardless of policy. It wasn't intentional, I just couldn't stop it. I wasn't alone.
I'm a jaded coaster junkie. I can ride 200, 300, 400ft tall coasters without a moment of fear or intimidation. I can be launched, catapulted, looped, reversed, dangled, and even sent backward and my heart rate won't increase much. I've long-ago reached the point where these things are fun, but not so much a thrill any more. So when some ride moment takes my breath away, it's noteworthy. This one did. Unlike the other models of this type, there is no feeling of being hemmed in by the shoulder bars. You feel very, very exposed (although completely safe) and vulnerable. The transition from straight up to beyond straight down is abrupt and without time to prepare. It is a mind-altering moment of coaster bliss and even after more than 50 rides, it gets my attention. There are just not enough adjectives in my vocabulary to describe what happens in less than one second of time. I really had to choice but to sum it all up in that one four-letter word.
I did mention before that the ride is twenty seconds long. All of the above drama happens in about one second. Nineteen more to go, and seriously if it didn't do anything but that drop, it would STILL be a good ride. But it does do more. Right after the drop, the car rockets into a half-loop, pointing you back at the island, but upside-down. Here a warped twisted track puts the car into a clockwise barrel roll. The rider in the front-left seat gets an extra treat here as his body is tossed forward a bit just as the car begins to twist. The momentary false feeling of "I'm going to fall out!" is fleeting, but effective.
Diving out of this, the track makes a wicked, low-level zig-zag at high speed before racing into a cutback maneuver, the third time you'll be upside-down... so far.
The cutback leads right into an inclined loop without any sort of recovery time. That this thing crams four inversions into such a small footprint is amazing. There's not an inch of wasted track.
...and then you hit the brakes. I should probably mention that the riders on the right side are hanging out over the edge of the pier at this point, and looking over the edge of the car yields only water in view. Neat. The riders might not even notice, though, because they're usually still in shock or talking excitedly with their friends, who are still in shock. It's a twenty second ride that packs in as much intensity as a lot of much, much bigger coasters. I'm impressed. And that drop still gets my attention.