Playland Park in Vancouver, BC is a hodgepodge of carnival-style rides and attractions with no central theme. It's mostly just some rides on a big parking lot in the hot sun with the Canadian Rockies off in the distance. A perfectly fine place to spend an afternoon with friends. One corner of the park, however, seems to be awfully well-landscaped and tended to with a good deal of love and affection... and there's a coaster in it.
I was expecting to like Coaster because of the nostalgia factor. It opened in 1958 and Playland has been running it just like it did back then for more than fifty years. Unlike other older rides, this one hasn't been modified with the latest technology in control systems, it hasn't had magnetic brakes installed, the trains have flanged wheels (like a railroad car, as opposed to modern trains that have a separate set of wheels inside the rails to steer), and it still operates with old-fashioned hand brakes. A ride on this would be like stepping into a time machine to a bygone era of thrills. I was stoked.
When I got to the station, I couldn't believe how impeccably preserved the trains were. Plush padding, fresh paint, wheels lubed... I know parks with far bigger budgets that don't spend this much time and money to keep their coasters looking great. I mean, just LOOK AT THIS.
Sitting in the seat, I knew that this was going to be awesome. They are the most comfortable coaster trains I've ever sat in, by a HUGE margin. I totally want one of these in my living room, seriously. I should also mention that the lap bar barely qualifies to be called that, as even when it's all the way down, it's nowhere near your lap. More on that later.
The train rumbles out of the station into a long turn that's slightly below grade. Not sure why that is, rather than just building the station up higher... but no matter. Off we go to the rickety old lift hill.
At this point, I'm just soaking it all in, basking in the nostalgia of the whole experience so far. The loading procedure was old-school: there were no seat belts to check, no computers to monitor, just sit down and go. The feel of the old flange-wheeled trains was unique and the sound of the ride was the very definition of classic. Even the layout, which I had been noticing from the queue, was of a bygone era. Today's rides tend to run full-tilt from start to finish, without a single moment of slowness, just non-stop intensity until it's done. This Coaster was more of a storyteller, one that mixes fast bits and slow bits to craft a tale, using anticipation of the next drop as effectively as the drop itself. It seems to be a lost art of coaster design and I was anxious to see this 'story' played out.
The train tops the lift, giving a nice view of the mountains, then slips into a dive that is fairly tame by today's standards, but must've been terrifying back in the day.
It's a speedy trip down and back up, and the turn that follows seems to appear out of nowhere, especially if you're near the front of the train.
Here's where the layout's story crafting comes into play. After that quick drop and rise, the train lackadaisically meanders around the turn, giving riders a chance to catch their breath, look at the scenery, and contemplate what that next drop is going to be like.
The front of the train gets a nice, long look at the rest of the layout before the next drop. The back of the train gets to experience the first of many exquisite moments that also seem to be missing from modern designs: getting pulled around the end of a flat turn into a steep drop.
It's a simple bit of physics: the train was going nice and slow. The front car reaches the precipice of the drop and gravity begins to pull it over. As more and more of the train gets to the downhill track, the train picks up speed. The back of the train, however, is still going around the curve... and as the speed picks up, riders are pushed into the side of the car with more and more force. As it finally reaches the edge of the drop, speed is quite high and the train seems to be yanked from under you - while you're still wanting to go sideways. Notice in the picture above, the guy in the white shirt near the back of the train holding onto the side of the car, presumably to keep from squishing the woman next to him. Also, see the woman two rows in front of him whose boobage is struggling to stay in her shirt with all the upward forces, not to mention the woman one row farther up whose hair tells an even more dramatic story. It's like falling off a cliff, this drop, and it only gets better from here.
Remember I said that the lap bars don't get anywhere near your lap? This becomes really evident to the folks in the front of the train as they crest the next hill. One minute, you're speeding up the hill and the next moment, the seat you were once sitting on simply isn't there. After an alarming split second that seems to last an eternity, your legs finally make contact with that lap bar, but you are WAY up out of your seat by then. The rest of the train doesn't get this blast of terror... yet. But they probably noticed the folks in front soaring up out of their seats and are probably wondering when their time will come. It will, soon enough.
A shallow dip and another slow turn lead to a flat section of track with a block brake (not used except for emergency stops) and then all the drama starts. Back seat riders get catapulted from their seats as they careen over the drop, the fan turn that follows makes sure everyone gets really well-acquainted with their riding partners, and the hills and turns just get more and more compact and forceful as the car finally rolls back into the station.
Yes, I expected to like the coaster for the nostalgia. I came away from the ride absolutely astounded by what a good ride it is. Knoebel's Phoenix is the only coaster I can think of that even gets close to this kind of experience today, and even though Phoenix is a great ride, in my book this is far and away the better coaster. There's just nothing else out there right now that packs this much airtime with trains that have so much room under the lap bar. You just can't believe it until you ride it.
While I was there, the queue got a bit long and they added a third train. Unlike other parks, where this is a lengthy process involving shutting down the ride for awhile, Playland simply sends a trainload of riders out and while they're going up the hill, they slide the new train over in the station (all via manual handbrakes) and load it! When three trains are running, incoming trains get the lap bars released as the train rolls in and folks get out while it's still moving. It goes forward, the next set of riders hop in as soon as it stops, and they release the train in seconds flat. The ride op who mans the big handbrake at the front of the station literally pushes the lap bars down one by one as the train is leaving the station. I timed a few circuits and they literally took less than THIRTY SECONDS to unload, move forward, load, and dispatch a whole train of passengers. It's amazing to watch and it takes a crew who is on top of their game to pull that off consistently. Kudos to them and to the park for keeping this amazing coaster running like a truly world-class attraction.