Cedar Point
May 29-30, 2018

copyright Jay Ducharme 2018

Karen had been assigned Grand Jury duty over the summer, so we had one chance to visit our daughter and grandkids in Ohio. Since we had to drive halfway there for the Western New York Coaster Club's Coasterfest™, I suggested we might as well pay a visit right after. So on Monday after leaving Darien Lake, the final park for the coaster event, we stopped in to a nearby Bob Evans for breakfast before driving five hours to Sandusky, home of Cedar Point. We arrived in time for a picnic at the in-laws' home and spent the rest of Monday relaxing there before checking into our hotel.

On Tuesday, I went to the park with our son-in-law Andrew, who's a coaster enthusiast. He was eager for me to ride the park's newest addition, Steel Vengeance. The previous season, the park was being purposefully oblique about what was happening to their old and much maligned wooden roller coaster Mean Streak. At the time it was built, it was the largest wooden coaster in the world. But bigger doesn't always mean better, and after 20 years the ride was painful and boring. So in 2017 the park began its reconstruction. Those of us who follow the roller coaster industry knew it was being redesigned by Rocky Mountain Construction, currently the most prolific firm in the industry. And last season I got to see some tantalizing views of the construction progress. But it wasn't until months later that the park made its official announcement.

As we approached the main gate, I noticed that the giant T-Rex was gone that used to stand guard there (usually covered with seagulls) to advertise the park's Dinosaur's Alive exhibit. Once we were in the park, we headed for the far north end to queue up for the ride. The park was still tweaking the coaster after some mechanical issues, so only one train was running. But we got there early enough so that our wait was "only" about an hour. The park originally announced that it was going to be extending their western-themed midway into the large open area within the structure of Steel Vengeance. But apparently they reconsidered, since that area was filled with a winding queue line, much as had been done for Mean Streak. We walked past the ride's big sign that appeared chained to rocks and entered the winding queue maze within. What impressed me most about RMC's (re)designs was that the company managed to retain the footprint and much of the structure of the original coaster, yet also created an entirely new ride experience. Granted, the result was no longer a wooden coaster, but it breathed new life into a previously dying attraction. They used the term "hybrid" to refer to Steel Vengeance, but it was really a steel coaster much in the same way the park's Gemini racing coaster and Cedar Creek Mine Ride were steel coasters that happened to have wooden support structures. The subdued Steel Vengeance color scheme (dark red track on natural wood) avoided calling attention to that fact, though.

Standing beneath the 90-degree first drop, the ride looked dangerously imposing. The train, which was themed to look somewhat like an old steam engine, was relatively quiet but blasted by us with incredible speed. Much of the time it was difficult to even see the train because of how the dense wood structure enveloped the track.

We gradually made our way to the station. Upon arriving I was surprised to see that even though the station was set up for any-seat queuing, the attendant there was assigning seats much as Six Flags New England did with its RMC ride Wicked Cyclone. So there was no front seat for us. We were assigned the last car, but at least in its front. I wasn't that worried because I knew how smooth RMC coasters were. The seats and restraints were comfortable, and in a few minutes we rolled out of the station, turned 180 degrees to the right, glided over two bunny hops and engaged the extremely loud lift. It didn't take long to reach the top of the 205-foot-high hill. The cars in front of us seemed to vanish one by one over the drastically steep drop. We were yanked over the hill with surprising force. The drop lifted us out of our seats. We sped over a small speed bump and then up into the next big hill with powerful airtime. We then plunged toward the ground before racing up into the ride's oddest element: an outward bank turn that, surprisingly, felt like a normal hill. Next there was a sort of double-up leading to the ride's first barrel-roll which was a glass-smooth weightless inversion, something RMC had become known for. The track doubled back 180 degrees ending in another barrel-roll and swooping up beside the third hill and into the long flat mid-course brake run, which imperceptibly slowed us. The brake run dropped us down to ground level again after which was another double-up with sharp airtime. Then we dove into the structure for my favorite element on the ride, something RMC called a snake dive; the train began to turn over to the left as if we were going to do another barrel-roll, but then snapped back to the right. It was a wonderful surprising effect. We curved around inside the structure, flying through one more barrel-roll. The train then bounced from one bunny hop to another, following the perimeter of the ride all the way back to the station. When the train stopped, the riders were whooping and cheering. It was long and really intense yet really comfortable (even in the back), and probably one of the greatest roller coasters ever built. Later in the week, Cedar Point was back to multi-train operation. And they were going to need it; Steel Vengeance was going to be the most popular coaster in the park.

By the time we exited the ride, the queue had lengthened considerable and was probably close to a two hour wait. So we walked through the western town and over to the Gemini midway. It was then nearly 11:00 we were both getting hungry and thirsy. I knew exactly what I wanted! The Gemini midway was home to the Happy Friar, which sold that rare delicacy cheese-on-a-stick. So we walked over to the window. There were several workers inside standing around. I asked for a cheese-on-a-stick and was told by one of the workers that they wouldn't open for another three minutes. So instead Andrew and I walked across the midway to ride Gemini. The venerable racer, once one of the largest rollercoasters in the world, had no line. We walked into the station and queued up for the front seat. Until the park had a full station crew, they were running two trains but on the same track. So there was no racing. But even so, Gemini delivered its reliable punchy (and eerily silent) ride. It was still a fun coaster. After that we walked back over to the Happy Friar and I was able to order a fresh cheese-on-a-stick. Andrew got a drink and we relaxed at one of the cafe tables.

After that refreshment, we headed nearby to one of Andrew's favorite rides, Magnum XL-200, the first coaster to break the 200-foot barrier. We didn't have to wait long for the front seat of the retro trains, which looked like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In short order we were clattering up the tall lift, with spectacular views of Lake Erie. The ride felt a bit rougher this year, with the train shaking and vibrating its way through the course. The run of spikey bunnyhops back to the station was as violent as usual, sending us slamming up into our lapbars.

Andrew wanted me to take a look inside the nearby Town Hall Museum. He had mentioned they had made some changes there. But I wasn't expecting the site that greeted me: a massive model of Steel Vengeance, still under construction. It was about 15 feet wide and stood nearly six feet tall. It made the big K'nex Ferris wheel nearby seem puny by comparison. The model was being constructed by Matt Schmotzer from Michigan. He had even placed a small construction crane at the area he was currently constructing. It was going to look spectacular when finished.

We walked back through the shady Frontier section of the park and queued up for the Point's newly-deposed king of the midway, Millennium Force, the 300-foot-tall speed coaster. The park was running three trains, and the line moved along quickly. Within about a half-hour, we were in the station and waiting for the front seat. Actually getting into the train took about another 20 minutes, but the front seat on that coaster was always worth it. Well ... perhaps not in this instance. The infamous mayflies had hatched and the park was swarming with them. At 95 mph, Andrew ended up swallowing one and I ended up with them splattered on my face. Still a great ride, now with extra protein.

After cleaning up, we needed something else to drink. So Andrew headed over to Starbucks near the front of the park and I went into the Toft's Ice Cream Parlor. There was a long line and only three people behind the counter. One girl stood at the cash register waiting. One guy took orders. If the order was ice cream in a dish or cone, he'd make it. If it was a milkshake or smoothie, he'd call out the order to another kid behind him who already seemed overworked. There were two milkshakes and two smoothies partially made on the back counter. Guests in line seemed to all be ordering drinks, and the ice cream guy would call out the orders ("another mango smoothie; a chocolate milkshake; a strawberry smoothie") and then just stand there idly while the kid behind him flew about in a near panic. Meanwhile the girl at the register continued to stand there looking bored. I wanted a vanilla milkshake. Twenty minutes later, I had it. Granted, it was a really good milkshake. But I don't understand why there was only one person making them when obviously that's what people wanted. One other thing that seemed puzzling: there was a Flavor of the Day sign posted on the wall. The flavor listed was "Superman". Not only did that not strike me as very appetizing, but Superman was a Six Flags thing. Nothing else at Cedar Point referenced Superman. Plus, that flavor was nowhere to be found in the ice cream bins (though there was a Steel Vengeance flavor and a Valravn flavor).

Once we finished our drinks, we headed across the midway and under Raptor to my favorite coaster in the park, Blue Streak. Once again, the line was nearly non-existent and we queued up for the front seat and in a few minutes were on our way up the lift, which by Cedar Point standards now seemed laughably small. We cruised down the drop, over a speed bump and then up the second hill with nice floating airtime. It was the same on the next hill. The turnaround had its usual strong laterals, then we bunny-hopped all the way back to the station. Blue Streak once again proved that bigger didn't always mean better. It was still the perfect wood coaster.

We browsed through some of the gift shops and then hopped aboard a relaxing ride on the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad. The northbound trip took us along the lakeside and over to Steel Vengeance. The southbound leg featured a trip through Boneville, featuring animatronic skeletons in a variety of humorous situations. When we returned to the middle of the park, we walked across the midway to the Iron Dragon, another of my favorite rides. The line for this ride was slightly longer, but even so we were in the front seat within 15 minutes. I guess that was one of the advantages of coming to the park during the off-season. Andrew said a "slow day" at the park usually brings in about 15,000 guests, an enviably busy day at most other parks.

The Iron Dragon style of suspended roller coaster was becoming an endangered species, with only a few left in the world. I loved the unique swinging movement underneath the track, and the abrupt accelerations and decelerations. It was a short but enjoyable trip, by which point it was about 4:00. Andrew suggested Perkins for dinner, over at the Breakers hotel on the beach. So we headed for the boardwalk at the east end of the park. Andrew pointed out the work that had been done in the off-season; the boardwalk had been expanded south all the way to the parking lot. That meant that guests no longer had to enter the park to enjoy the beach (or Perkins). Andrew also pointed out that the small building that once used to house rentals had been converted into a stage where a band was running through old chestnuts from the '60s and '70s. He also mentioned how the lake was really high this year, leaving relatively little beach on which people could sun themselves.

We seemed to be the only customers in Perkins when we arrived. I ordered a salmon dinner (my second in a week!) and it was quite tasty. And I didn't have to worry about oversized croutons. After dinner we walked back onto the midway. I wanted to check out how the arcade was doing. The Point was one of the few amusement parks that maintained a respectable stock of pinball machines. I was happy to discover that they still had their two Hercules machines (the largest commercial pinball machines ever made), and both of them were working! However, only one other machine out of the entire row was functional. It was Gottlieb's old Abra Ca Dabra. An elderly gentleman was playing it, saying, "This machine is free! You just push the button and you can play it!" We had a few games on Hercules, and then called it a day.

On Wednesday morning, Karen drove me to the park. We walked along the new stretch of boardwalk, past the sweeping track of Gatekeeper. The beach was quiet. We strolled back to the parking lot. I mentioned to Karen that the park now had food trucks on the midway, which surprised her. Cedar Point had to bring them in because the park couldn't get enough help to staff their own food concessions.

Karen went back to her daughter's while I headed for Steel Vengeance to do some filming. I had planned to take another ride on that coaster, but by the time I got there the wait was already over an hour-and-a-half. So I spent my time just filming. After a couple of hours, I had all the shots I wanted. I was getting hungry, so I knew it was time for my daily cheese-on-a-stick. As I headed in that direction, I passed Maverick, the high-speed low-to-the-ground Intamin launch coaster. It was sort of a mini Millennium Force, and the only roller coaster in the park I had never ridden. I had heard stories of riders' heads getting slammed around in the over-the-shoulder harnesses, and I wasn't keen on that thought. But the park had replaced the hard restraints with padded cloth harnesses. So I decided to give it a try. After all, it was only 100 feet high; how bad could it be?

The trains were really short and the park ran four of them. They'd load two at a time and send them off one after the other. I queued up for the front seat of the second train in the station. Each of the trains was named after a character from the old Maverick TV series, a humorous touch that probably was lost on most of the guests. As the train slowly rolled into place, a single guy joined my queue. I sat down in the seat and was taken aback by how small it was. It was as if I had sat down in a kiddie ride. The center of the seat had a large horn sticking up that crushed my crotch. And the rest of the seat was so narrow that it felt like I was sitting on two cereal bowls. The guy next to me was much larger than I, and I asked him if his seat was comfortable. He had ridden the ride many times and confirmed that, yeah, the seats were pretty bad. But at least the restraints were comfortable.

The train in front of us advanced to the lift hill, which was lined with steel fins. Once the train was on the lift, powerful magnets thrust it up and over and out of sight. Our train moved into position, and as we engaged the lift I could feel the strong G forces as we flew up the hill much faster than any chain or cable could have pulled us. The track disappeared from under us and doubled back in on itself as we plunged down the first drop and then into a wide right-hand turn at ground level, followed by a left-hand turn, another right-hand turn and then up into a camelback hill with ejector airtime. We dove down into another ground-hugging right-hand turn and then up into a high barrel roll, then back down into a left-hand turn. Another barrel roll was followed by a right-hand turn into a dark tunnel, where the train slowed a bit. So far, the ride was smooth, well-paced and lots of fun. There were sequencing lights on either side of the tunnel and we were suddenly blasted forward at an enormous speed. A ridiculously sharp left turn threw us up into a tall hill that dropped down alongside a pond, where water cannons blasted mist as the train roared through a right-hand sweeping arc. We flipped rapidly from left to right, up over a speed bump, around a corner and hit the brakes. I was glad I rode it, but once was enough. The second half of the ride had too much speed packed into too little track; if it had been more like the first half, I probably would have ridden it again.

After that, it was cheese-on-a-stick time. So I headed back toward the main midway. Along the way, I noticed the new rollercoaster-like stage being constructed where the former Luminosity show used to be. The multilevel plywood structure had been spruced up since the previous day when Andrew and I saw it. It was going to be used for the motorcycle stunt show that used to be housed in the old aquatic pavilion that had just been torn down. I finally made it to Corral, beneath the Raptor track next to the Cedar Downs Racing Derby. The cheese-on-a-stick there wasn't as fresh as the one I had the previous day, but it was still a tasty treat -- and the last one I would have for a long time.

I needed something to drink, so I decided to take my chances again with Toft's. On my way there, I paused to listed to a passing high school marching band. Toft's now had six workers behind the counter, and one customer. Three of the workers were getting trained by the three workers who were there the previous day. It took much less time to get my milkshake (still remarkably made with SIX scoops of ice cream!). So I sat in the air-conditioned parlor sipping my drink until I got a text from Karen. She had returned to pick me up. She also had gotten her season pass processed. We walked over to the railroad and took a ride, then walked back toward the main midway. Along the way we passed by a small stage that had been set up opposite the motorcycle stage. A high school chorus was performing there, occasionally drowned out by Valravn's massive trains roaring by. It began to rain lightly, so we bid the park farewell for another year as its iconic skyline faded into the distance.

I'm glad we were able to make the trip out to Cedar Point this season. Steel Vengeance lived up to its hype, actually one of the few instances where the hype didn't do it justice. Unlike many Six Flags parks, I still enjoyed most of the major rides at The Point. There are seven coasters that for me are thrilling without being punishing, not including the kiddie coasters. And if it weren't for the second half of Maverick, there'd be eight. And in addition to that, there are plenty of other rides and attractions that I enjoy. And we can't forget about cheese-on-a-stick! I hope the park continues that trend. As long as it does, we'll be back for more.

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