|It was hard to believe that four years had passed since we last made the short drive to our home park, Six Flags New England.
A lot had happened since then. Six Flags was taken over by
new management. The Wiggles and Thomas the Tank Engine areas were
abandoned. Six Flags had removed every non-water family ride from
the park except for the New England Skyway, and that ride often wasn't even
open. And most significantly, the greatest steel roller coaster
ever built -- Superman: Ride of Steel -- had been re-made into the
giant purple Bizarro. The added "theming" (if that's what you
could call plywood cut-outs and flame throwers) didn't bother me.
But the train modifications seemed completely unnecessary. Not
only was a new and more confining restraint system added; the trains,
which once offered open seating with spectacular views, now sported
wrap-around headrests that blasted 90 decibel music in your ears as you
rode. There were so many other rides in the park that needed
modification: the brutal Mind Eraser, the de-themed Pandemonium, the laughably out-dated Flashback. Even the Cyclone,
the park's violent signature woodie, needed a lot of TLC. But
instead Six Flags modified the best ride they had. That decision
made absolutely no sense to me. I didn't like the headrests and I
didn't want my ears blasted. And since Superman was about the
only ride left in the park that Karen and I enjoyed, we simply stopped
Karen and I were going to the Western New York Coaster Club's Coasterfest at the end of May, and we would save a lot on the registration fee if we had a Six Flags season pass. Plus, we were thinking of going to Six Flags parks in other states. So the season pass seemed to make good financial sense this year. We had to get our season pass processed before we could use it, so we made the trip out to Agawam on a cool and cloudy Saturday. We arrived at the park at about 11:00 and paid the exorbitant $15 parking fee. The parking lot was already pretty full. Rather than take the tram, we walked along the winding sideway following the entrance road and climbed the long staircase up to the pedestrian bridge over Main Street. The park entrance hadn't changed. We headed for the season pass processing station and within a few minutes had our passes in hand. Loud modern pop music blared from the PA system. We walked down the park's own Main Street. The shops hadn't changed much. There was a nearby souvenir stand that was clearing out merchandise of the park's eerie mascot, Mr. Six. The pavement, concrete that was formed to look like cobblestone, had begun cracking in many places and had been hastily patched with asphalt.
The park still had many fine examples of well-done theming, though it was never consistent. The old seaside New England section abutted the Looney Tunes kids area which abutted ... asphalt and a pile of unthemed rides. It was as if a park design had never been thoroughly executed. The copious asphalt appeared to have had sealant recently applied, and the entire north section of the park was filled with its stench. The New England Skyway was operating, so we climbed the steep stairway and waited. The old wooden Thunderbolt ran through its course just once while we were there. After a few minutes we were in the old Von Roll bubble cage and soon were soaring high above the midway. The Cyclone was screeching its way around the sinuous track. Pandemonium was below us. We left the Skyway at the far north end of the park, next to the Cyclone's entrance. Nearby was a new (to us) spin-and-barf ride, Catapult, that wasn't operating. I somehow missed the old Cyclone entrance, an interminable winding tunneled walkway underneath the center of the ride. It was depressingly unique. The new entrance was better, but had gone to seed with tall grass and weeds claiming every patch of grround that wasn't paved.
Six Flags had done a lot of work on the Cyclone over the years. Most of their work was done to help reduce maintenance, but it seemed to me that the ride got worse and worse with every attempt to fix it. The coaster had one of the most thrilling first drops ever built, but the park had raised the drop about twenty feet and eliminated a lot of the thrill. This season, Six Flags experimented with Topper Track created by Rocky Mountain Construction. It essentially was a pre-fab steel version of the top few layers of wood track, creating a "hybrid" roller coaster. It's debatable whether the result produces a true wood coaster or a steel coaster. At any rate, a section of the Cyclone track from the second to the third hill was replaced with Topper Track. I was eager to see (and feel) the result. From the loud squealing of the train wheels, it was evident that Six Flags still wasn't greasing their track. So I knew the ride wasn't going to be all that fast. When we arrived at the station, only a few people were in line before us. We waited ... and waited and waited and waited. The train was in the station and nothing was happening. After about ten minutes, a young girl was escorted out the exit by park personnel. She was crying and her wrist was swollen. Karen recognized her face. She had seen the girl on the last ride and it appeared the girl was holding the hand of someone in the seat behind her as the train whipped around its course. After the girl left, the next load of passengers rolled out of the station and we were allowed to queue up. Behind us in line was a woman who had attended the Quassy Park Wooden Warrior Day the week before. We chatted about coasters. She mentioned how much she liked the re-tracking of the Cyclone, and how she enjoyed Bizarro. Karen and I felt hopeful that we'd like it too.
In a short time, we were in the front seat of the snug trains and cruising up the lift. The structure looked like it badly needed a new paint job. We crested the lift and looked down the shortened drop. Then we plunged down with surprising speed. The train shook, but not nearly as violently as it had in the past. The second hill was notorious for stalling the Cyclone trains. But even in the cool weather, we flew up and over with remarkable force. As soon as we hit the Topper Track, I could feel a strange pulsating vibration in the train. It wasn't painful, but it was definitely noticeable. We sped down the second drop and rose up with a shockingly powerful pop of airtime. After a 180-degree turn, we dropped into the chaotic ending of the ride. That had usually been the most painful part, but this time it wasn't nearly as bad. Two sets of mid-course brakes tugged on the train during that section, slowing us down considerably. We rounded the final corner and hit the extremely long brake run. Overall, the Cyclone had improved a bit since the last time we had ridden it. But it wasn't nearly as smooth as it was over a decade ago, when the trains were brand new. It also wasn't as fun. As for the Topper Track, I didn't know what to make of it. There was such a short stretch of it on the ride. But the vibrations that I felt didn't bode well, in my opinion.
As we headed out the exit, the Catapult began running, looking like an enormous two-vane windmill. There seemed to be such an enormous amount of steel and it did so little. We watched it slowly spin for a while and then headed back out onto the midway. Pandemonium was enclosed by a high metal fence. Oddly, there were danger signs all along the fence warning guests to keep out because of high voltage. I couldn't understand that, since there didn't seem to be any high voltage equipment in the vicinity -- just track and grass. Then I noticed that almost every fence on every ride had the same sign, and it didn't make any sense. There was one on the fence of the park's Scrambler -- and guests had to be inside the fence or else they couldn't board the ride!
We felt like having lunch, so as we headed back by the Looney Tunes area we checked out the food concessions. There used to be a Subway, but it was replaced by a Greek gyro concession. Gone were the concessions selling clams, fish and shrimp. Instead were concessions selling hamburgs, fried chicken and french fries. Across the midway was a new Panda Garden selling generic Chinese food -- again, all meat (except for a spring roll). I knew what I really wanted, so we headed for my favorite food concession in the western-themed Crackaxle Canyon area. There was a small booth selling turkey legs. But it also sold corn on the cob and (my favorite) delicious fresh diced potatoes pan-fried with peppers and onions. We arrived at the booth only to discover that it now sold -- I'm not kidding -- french fries on a stick. Across the midway from that concession were two barbeque concessions selling pork and ribs. There were expensive sides of baked beans (most likely cooked with pork) and cole slaw. But we wanted something a little more substantial. There was a Cold Stone Creamery nearby, but we didn't want to eat dessert first. Wearily, we headed out of Crackaxle Canyon. Karen remembered the Pizzeria Uno stand near the Rockville section of the park. So we headed over there. We took a detour through the Looney Tunes gift shop. It offered a nice coaster-themed snow globe, but we didn't want to carry it around with us for the rest of the day. So we continued over to Pizzeria Uno's.
The colorful Wiggles area was now renamed Kidopolis, and next to it was the pizza shop, now under new management, and a cafe plaza that used to serve salads. The plaza now served hamburgs, fried chicken and french fries. We walked into the new Primo's Pizza and weaved our way through the tightly packed tables to the counter. They thankfully had cheese pizza -- but at a ridiculous $8.99 a slice! I refused to pay that amount, so we headed for what used to be a nearby pasta shop. It had been replaced with another Primo's Pizza.
Beginning to grow tired, we decided instead to walk down the long staircase into the DC Comics area. The small coaster that had begun its life as Poison Ivy's Twisted Train (and was now Catwoman's Tail) in a rather barren area was now almost completely concealed by foliage. To the left, replacing the old Batman Stunt Show stage, was the park's newest ride -- a used Wild Mouse coaster, the awkwardly named Gotham City Gauntlet: Escape From Arkham Asylum. Except for the sign at the entrance, there was no attempt to theme the ride. It was a pile of metal in the middle of a field. Next door was Johnny Rocket's. We took a peek inside, but it served only hamburgs, fried chicken and french fries.
So we walked across the midway to Bizarro. The ride was really really purple. Even though the woman at the Cyclone said it was still a great ride, I had my doubts. But at least I'd be able to find out for myself. The entrance area no longer had a queue line. Instead it held a locker concession. I thought that was an odd place to stow items you didn't want to take on the ride, since the exit wasn't anywhere near there. Plus there were free wood storage areas in the station. We walked down to the twisting queue line that once formed Superman's S; it was overgrown with weeds and bushes. Most of it was blocked off and probably hadn't been used in a long time. As we headed toward the station, swarms of kids rushed past us and climbed over and under the railings. There were relatively few people in line, but we still had to wind our way through the seemingly never-ending maze of railings (unless we wanted to climb over or under them like the kids). The giant steel structures outside the station were still accented with red neon lights, which probably looked great at night.
It took about fifteen minutes to reach the loading area. We were surprised to find that the line for the front seat was overflowing with people. I took one look at the train in the station and I understood why. With the old trains, every rider had a great view. But now if you sat anywhere but the front, you were looking at the back of a headrest (unless you happened to be tall). I noticed something else that was odd. Both trains were missing a set of seats toward their middle. In place of the seats was a strange metal box. I assumed it must have had something to do with the on-board sound system. If that were the case, adding sound to the ride was an even dumber idea, since the ride lost capacity as well. The trains loaded relatively quickly, but there were so many people ahead of us that it took about twenty minutes to reach the front seat. I actually didn't care if it took an hour; there was no way I would sit in any other seat. And I discovered why the lockers were installed: the park had removed the free wood storage areas that were in the station.
We finally boarded the train. The restraints were much more confining than the original T-bar. As we sat there, audio began blasting from the speakers on either side of my head. I couldn't understand much of it because of all the noise in the station. We started up the lift hill and the audio seemed to get louder, with explosions, bombastic music and someone screaming about going into a wormhole. It was really annoying and unnecessary, and for the most part unintelligible. We crested the lift, overlooking the swollen Connecticut River, and tipped downward toward the first drop. The impossibly tight tunnel below was framed with a giant purple cartoon cut-out. The tunnel was belching mist. The view was still breathtaking, and I realized how much I missed the ride. The drop was really imposing. We screamed through the 200-foot decent and flew up into the first hill with its delightful sustained airtime. The audio was blaring away, but it was just white noise as the wind whipped across our faces. My head banged into the headrest a couple of times. We careened through the over-banked turn and encountered a brief series of cartoonish wooden cut-out buildings. We rose up into the third hill and then the infamous fourth hill, which attempted to catapult us out of the train. We passed between some odd metal structures with lights on them and then flew through the double-helix section. I felt my spine compress as the positive Gs crushed us into our seats. The second tunnel was filled with mist, which probably would have been refreshing on a hot day. Then we lept over the final bunny hops and glided into the brakes.
The ride was still Superman at heart, and for that I was glad. The transformation into Bizarro merely cheapened a great experience by adding the unneeded headrests, annoying audio and mostly pointless scenery pieces. The only addition that I liked was the series of metal structures at the bottom of the fourth drop. I got off the ride feeling a bit weak. I also had a slight headache coming on, probably from the helix. I was also hungry. So Karen and I headed out of the DC Comics area determined to find something to eat. We stopped to watch Bizarro plunge into its second tunnel.
Karen thought she remembered some eateries past the Rockville section, so we headed that way. There was a concession that used to sell fresh-cut french fries, but was now serving hamburgs, fried chicken and generic french fries. There was a hot dog vendor. There was another Primo's Pizza booth that also served mozarrela sticks and cheese fries. Further south where the giant Colossus Ferris wheel once stood was now an upcharge attraction, Slingshot. It was, as the name implies, a giant mechanical slingshot that guests could ride for an extra $35. We stood and watched it. It didn't seem like much bang for the buck.
We circled around toward the Batman coaster. Finally, there was the concession Karen was looking for: in large lettering on the side, it proclaimed "Fresh Grinders -- made to order." We picked up our pace and headed for the front of the building. But it turned out they now served only hamburgs, fried chicken and french fries. Next door was yet another Primo's Pizza. This was turning into a sick joke. There was still one food joint in the park that we hadn't been to -- Captain Rivi's, near the entrance. We weren't very hopeful, but we trudged all the way back with our fingers crossed. On the way we stopped by the Main Street gift shop. Outside of a few unimpressive items, everything in the store was generic Six Flags merchandise. So we left quickly.
The park was hosting busloads of students from school band programs across the area, and Rivi's was mobbed. Above the order counters running the entire length of the building were bright and colorful animated LED screens showing advertisements and the menu. I wish the park had taken the money used on the signs and put it into their actual food selections. Once again, our choices were hamburgs, fried chicked or french fries -- or Primo's Pizza. We assumed the queue at the very far end of the building had the same offerings, but we went there anyway. Lo and behold, to our astonishment they offered a Caesar salad wrap -- for $8.99. There was no way I was going to pay that for a hunk of pita bread stuffed with lettuce. We would have to get a $3 drink to go along with that, which would have made for a $24 snack. Six Flags New England, which once had a pretty decent food selection (and even some delicacies we actually looked forward to), now had the worst food choices of any park we knew. So Karen and I decided to leave and go to a local restaurant, where we could get a full meal at a reasonable price. We were at the park less than three hours and had ridden just two coasters and the Skyway. Most of our time was spent waiting in lines and looking for food.
I really want to like my home park. But there's so little for us to do and nothing we want to eat (besides ice cream). Six Flags needs to bring back a Ferris Wheel, antique cars, a train, a dark ride -- any type of attractions that adults would enjoy. As much as the advertisements tried to convince us otherwise, Six Flags was still a teen thrill park. With a season pass, we actually might have considered going there again for a short time -- except for the $15 parking fee, an amount that's almost as much as admission to many smaller parks where we'd have much more fun. When we walked back to our car, there were quite a few people in the parking lot unpacking coolers they brought with them. So we weren't the only ones unwilling to pay the high park prices for mediocre food. The employees seemed friendly enough. Ride operators were sending guests off with a strange but cheery, "Have a good ride! Whoop!" But it will take the park a lot more than forced enthusiasm to make us want to return.
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