|Coaster enthusiasts across the northeast had been waiting for this day. Six Flags New England
in Agawam, MA (our home park), had announced that season passholders
would be the first (outside of the press) to ride their new coaster,
Wicked Cyclone. The event was exciting because this coaster would
be the first of its kind on the east coast. It was built by Rocky Mountain Construction on the footprint of the legendary William Cobb-designed wooden Cyclone
that operated at the park for three decades. There weren't a lot
of people riding the old Cyclone. In the late 1990s, it was given
an impressive re-hab that made it smooth and thrilling, as it had been
designed. But over the years since then, it had deteriorated to a
pretty sad condition, so much so that riders were few. Riding it
could easily cause bruises.
So in 2014, the park announced that the Cyclone would be torn down. Rumors abounded about what would take its place. The park eventually announced that they had contracted with RMC, a company that had re-habbed two other problematic wood coasters for Six Flags. But RMC didn't just "re-hab" the rides; they created an entirely new beast. They called their rides "hybrid" coasters. But they really weren't. They were steel coasters through-and-through. Much of the original structure was replaced with steel and the new track system was entirely created out of steel. What RMC did do, though, is closely follow the layout of the original wood ride. So last autumn, I watched the gradual dismantling and re-construction of the Cyclone. By the time the park closed for the season, trackwork from the brake run to halfway down the first drop was completed. Although the original ride's layout was extremely tight, RMC seemed to be following its course pretty closely.
Even with that progress over the autumn, it seemed like the park wouldn't be opening the ride until sometime in June. So I was delighted to get an e-mail from the park about the season passholder event. On a gorgeous Friday morning, Karen and I headed down the road for our short trip to Agawam. As we turned on to Main Street and drove past the park, the new coaster's profile seemed subdued. The first drop was easily visible, and banked at a steep 78 degrees. But the rest of the ride was much lower to the ground and harder to see. The original Cyclone was famous for its short first drop that turned into a thrilling 180 degree swooping fan turn banked at nearly 90 degrees. RMC created its own version of that, but banked the turn over 90 degrees.
We drove onto the winding road leading to the parking lot across the street. It was a little after 9:00. Our season passes got us free parking, which was a huge incentive (since parking itself normally costs $20). The lot was populated by just a handful of cars. I felt relieved. I thought for sure the park was going to be mobbed. We parked directly under the #1 flag and walked over to the tram station. We waited a while, but evidently it wasn't yet running. So we walked over the entrance area, climbed the long staircase, walked across the bridge over Main Street and then down onto the entrance concourse. It was eerily empty. A half-dozen people were waiting in front of the closed entrance gates. So Karen and I lined up next to them in front of one of the many bar-code scanners. It was one of the few times we were first in line at the park. There were coaster enthusiasts next to us who were talking with great animation about rides they had been on and their excitement at getting to ride Wicked Cyclone. Karen and I stood there enjoying the cool breeze and watching sparrows flitting about inside the gates, darting in and out of nooks and crannies where they most likely had nests.
After about twenty minutes, the entrance crew began arriving and set themselves up at their stations. And about that time, almost as if flood gates had opened, hordes of people began streaming over the bridge and onto the concourse. Within a few minutes, there were hundreds of people lined up behind us. I had mis-heard that the park was going to give out free Wicked Cyclone t-shirts to the first 1000 riders. I knew that once the park opened, hundreds of teens would be running full-bore to the Cyclone's queue line. But I was hoping to at least have a chance to get there in time. (I later found out that the free t-shirt offer was for its "official" opening day on Sunday.)
A security guard showed up and said, "I know you're not fifteen feet tall, but please wait until the gates are completely raised before you enter." Once the gate opened fully, I stepped forward. The sign at the entrance said to first place your finger in the scanner and then swipe your season pass under the bar code reader. But the attendant told me that was wrong. I had to swipe the card first, then scan my finger. So I did, and the machine gave me an error. So I tried it again. And again. And again. Karen tried it, with the same result. Meanwhile, other people were streaming into the park without a problem. Another attendant came over to troubleshoot the issue. We tried swapping cards. That didn't work. They at least verified that we were in the system, but they wouldn't let us in until our fingerprints matched up. The new attendant re-scanned our cards on a separate reader and had us try it again. Finally it worked and we advanced over to the security checkpoint and handed the officer our fanny packs.
By that point it was clear that hundreds of people were already going to be lining up for the coaster. The park still had blocked off the handy cut-through next to the entrance that led directly to Crackaxle Canyon. So we took our time walking down the park's own Main Street, past the silent shops, and then onto Ed Carroll Blvd. We turned to the left -- and the crowd had been stopped there. A rope was pulled across the entire midway and various park employees were making sure no one was advancing any further. We stood over to the left.
That's when I noticed something different. To our right had been the entrance to the New England Skyway, a sky ride that we used to enjoy. It was gone, with the second-story entrance boarded up. The towers for the cables were still standing. But the park had removed yet another family ride. That left just two non-thrill rides in the entire park: the carousel and the antique cars. I don't understand how Six Flags can continue to claim that it's a great family destination.
Suddenly, the mob of people began filing onto the north midway. The guards had opened up a small area at the center of the roped-off section and were asking people to show their season passes. Karen and I slowly shuffled our way over and merged with the crowd. Kids were running toward the new coaster. When Karen and I arrived at the north end of the park, an extended queue line had been created next to what used to be the north station for the sky ride. The queue was already filled. We were stopped by an attendant who told us, "No fanny packs. You have to get a locker." She pointed behind us. The sky ride station had been converted into a locker rental facility. So basically, this was Six Flags' form of extortion. There were no bins at the coaster station in which to place our belongings. So instead we were forced to pay money, or we couldn't ride. The locker rental was $1 per ride. (How would they know how many rides we took?) There was a machine that would take our money and spit out a ticket. Guests in front of us were having trouble getting it to work properly. When it was my turn, I couldn't get it to accept my dollar bill until someone showed me an obscure area on the touch screen that I had to press. It was a pretty clunky system. But we got our locker and stowed our stuff. Luckily, I kept my season pass with me, because we had to show it again as we entered the queue line.
By the time we entered the line, the crowd began moving forward. We processed to the ride's former entrance, a winding queue through the coaster's back turn. RMC had kept the unique support poles and cabling from the original ride. There was a lot of steel structure, and any remaining wood structure from the original ride had been painted grey to match the steel. The new layout was remarkably similar to the old. After the first drop and turn, the track crossed under lift hill and rose up into a strange sort of half-corkscrew. That was followed by a heavily banked high-speed left-hand turn that echoed Cobb's original "hoop-de-doos", small undulations in the track. Then the ride plunged down next to the station (again like the original) and rose up into another strange almost-inversion. The last stretch of the ride was very similar to the original, with sharp changes of direction and bunny hop after bunny hop all the way back to the station.
The queue line itself had typical Six Flags theming. As the queue started there was half of a large dish antenna buried in the ground and a wrecked van. It reminded me of the theming for the original Batman: The Ride which featured junk like broken toilets scattered about. Further in, there were TV screens that played videos of a fake newscast about a severe weather alert. A nice touch was that it used local news personalities, including popular broadcaster Dave Madsen. The local weatherman announced that the storm "is officially called 'Wicked Cyclone'". A full-size prop plane was embedded into the base of the coaster station, cleverly cantilevered out so that it appeared to have just crashed. There was also a small boat next to the station stairs. But as Karen noted, it all looked too sterile. It would have been more convincing if there was other detritus scattered about, such as big tree branches embedded into the boat.
The line moved slowly, and as we got to the bottom of the stairs there was an announcement that there would be an extended wait because the park was putting on a second train. While that was good news, I wondered why they hadn't bothered doing that from the beginning. So while we waited, we chatted with other coaster enthusiasts in line. Many were from out of state. One was from Pennsylvania and had come up just to ride Wicked Cyclone.
After about another twenty minutes, the line began moving again and stopped when we were seven people from the station. The guy in front of us from Pennsylvania asked the attendant if he could line up for whatever seat he wanted. (He liked the back of the train.) He was told he couldn't. He had to take whatever seat was assigned to him. I found that odd. They had to re-do the station anyway and they knew the ride was going to be popular. So why not build out the station a bit to accomodate any-seat queuing? Oh, that's right -- this is Six Flags.
The guy asked if we wanted to switch with him, and that would put us in the third seat (the first seat of the second car, often called the Schmeck Seat because of its reputation for air time). Karen was hesitant. She normally only would ride in the very front. But I knew it would require extraordinary luck to get it. So I convinced her to stick with the third seat. We queued up for that seat. Oddly, even though they spent all that time putting another train on, they wouldn't let anyone ride it. It kept cycling through the station and running empty.
Finally we were seated. We clicked our seat belts into place. The restraints were odd. They were thick lap bars that also had contoured leg clamps that snugged up againt our shins. People seated in the trains looked as if they had been amputated at the knee. It actually wasn't at all uncomfortable. The attendants didn't try to staple us into our seats, so we had a bit of breathing room. We were dispatched out of the station along the exact same route of the original ride. We engaged the lift hill and swiftly climbed to the top. That's where the similarities ended.
The drop wasn't vertical nor was it very long -- but it felt it. We plunged toward the ground with surprising speed and flew into the first overbanked turn. We then dove down and sped up into that weird half-corkscrew, and I felt a prolonged sense of weightlessness. My body just floated in the retraints. Then we blasted down and into another overbanked turn, over the "hoop-de-doo", then down, up around another turn. And then something happened I didn't expect: the train climbed a hill and began to bank to the right. So I prepared my body for a right-hand turn. But the train suddenly veered to the left. It was a delightful trick, and it happened a few more times. I thought that was a clever way to honor Cobb's insane conclusion to the original ride, where you couldn't tell which direction you were heading. Then we bounded over the curving bunny hops all the way back to the station.
Wow. What a phenomenal design. Everyone on the train was cheering when we hit the brake run. I had feared that there would be severe positive Gs (my nemesis), which happen on almost all steel coasters. But refreshingly, this ride had none. It was one sustained pop of air time after another, accompanied by rapid and suprising changes of direction. And the ride was glass smooth. The trains were comfortable. And RMC was able to pay homage to Cobb's original Cyclone. Wicked Cyclone was now the best roller coaster in the park. (If Six Flags would just fix the terrible trains on Bizarro, that ride would reclaim the top spot.) And I later found out that the wheels on the trains had just been swapped out. The trains were made to run with nylon wheels, but the paint on the track was sticking to the nylon. So the park put steel wheels on until all the track paint had worn off. Supposedly, the ride will be even smoother and faster when the nylon wheels are back on.
The exit line led past the obligatory photo booth, and I was definitely going to pick up a photo of us. But when I got to the booth, the three monitors had images that were so tiny I couldn't make out who was on the ride. It was as if all the pictures had been zoomed out. So I bypassed the photos. Next door was a t-shirt shop and there were some nice Wicked Cyclone designs. I decided to save that for later.
That said, it didn't leave much else for us to do. One ride was enough for Karen. I had thought about taking another ride later on (especially since there really weren't many season passholders that turned out for the opening). But instead we decided to get something to eat. We headed toward the center of the park to the Go Fresh Cafe, which served black bean veggie burgers. The midway was now crowded with people, including lots of students from a nearby school music competition that had just ended. We made our way over to the Kizopolis area, only to find that the cafe was closed. There was a sign stating that it would open at 11:30. But it was already 11:40 and there was no sign of life inside. Next door to that was Route 66, the antique car ride. But it had been completely rethemed to Wild Wheels, a sort of jungle safari. The new cars were jeeps decorated in wild animal patterns. It fit well with the other kiddie rides in that section, and I was glad to see that they at least gave the ride a new lease on life. It was one of just four rides remaining from the old Riverside Park days.
We walked around the corner to the Famous Famiglia pizza eatery, since there wasn't anything else in the park we could eat. It was also one of the few eateries that was under cover. A single slice of pizza there was now ten bucks. TEN freaking dollars for a slice of pizza!? Talk about extortion... So I asked the clerk at the counter if Go Fresh was going to open. She was pleasant but looked a bit puzzled. "I thought it was open already." She checked a schedule and confirmed that it was supposed to be open. Karen and I were both hungry at that point and, without knowing exactly when (if ever) Go Fresh would open, decided to get a "snack". Karen ordered cheese fries and I ordered cheese sticks for $20 (with small soft drinks). The girl said it would be a few minutes and she would call us, so we walked over to a table. All of the cafe tables and seats were covered with pollen. It looked like they hadn't been cleaned since the season started. I got some napkins and brushed off as much of it as I could. Then we sat. We were two of just five people there. The other guests were also getting napkins and clearing off their tables.
Fifteen minutes passed. Lines began forming at the counter. People were ordering pizza. (Many entered and, seeing a price of $40 for a cheeze pizza, turned around and walked out.) People were also ordering french fries, and getting them. But yet ours wasn't ready. Finally the girl motioned to us. I went up there. She had a small container of fries, walked over to the nacho cheese dispenser, squirted liquid "cheese" on top and handed them to me. I asked about the cheese sticks and was told they weren't ready. I brought the fries over to Karen. The cheese was cold. The fries were basically McDonald's style, artificial thin flavorless sticks. After another five minutes, the girl called me over. The cheese sticks were basically a mini cheese pizza for half the price of a slice of cheese pizza. They came with cold marinara sauce and tasted fine. As we ate, we were surrounded by sparrows searching for any crumbs that might hit the ground.
After that, we strolled over to the Go Fresh Cafe just for the heck of it. Sure enough, it was open and there was a crowd of people at the counter. The menu was a bit confusing. The classic plain all-American veggie burger was more expensive than one with cheese. So I opted for the cheaper burger that had more on it. Compared with the pizza, it seemed like a bargain at $11. I also opted for an apple with the burger, instead of fries, and a fresh-squeezed lemonade. We stood around for a while. The girl who took my order continued taking orders. There was another girl who was making salads. No one seemed in a hurry to make my burger. More time passed. Eventually, the girl who took my order went behind the grill and began to make my burger. While it was cooking she brought me my lemonade, which was huge. And it was delicious, with just the right amount of sweetness. After a few minutes, she brought out my burger with a whole apple beside it. I gave the apple to Karen and we headed back to Famiglia to eat. The veggie burger was really good. Rather than a slab of cheese, it appeared to have been squirted with the same liquid that was on Karen's fries. Even so, it was money well-spent.
Next to Famiglia was the Center Stage, which was launching into an audience-participation fairy tale production for the kids. There weren't many people there, but the performers seemed enthusiastic.
I had recently gotten myself a ZeroLemon Solarjuice battery pack for my iPhone, and I wanted to test it out. When I had done park walk-thru videos in the past, my phone's battery power would get precariously low. So with the external power supply, I hoped I'd be able to take my time and not have to worry about running out of power. Karen gamely walked along with me as I walked through the entire park, the Solarjuice strapped to my arm. A little over a half-hour later, the video was finished. And my phone was fully charged. Mission accomplished!
After all that walking, I suggested we end our visit at Cold Stone Cremery in Crackaxle Canyon. There wasn't much of a line inside when we got there. But the line wasn't moving much, even with four people behind the counter. I looked over the choices on the wall, and the one that caught my eye was Apple Pie a la Cold Stone. After about ten minutes, we approached the counter. Karen ordered cheesecake ice cream in a dish. I ordered the Apple Pie. "We don't have that," the girl responded. I figured as much. I was going to ask why it was on the menu, but that would have been futile. So instead I ordered a small sweet cream cone. The girl went to work and gathered my ice cream into a dish. I said no, I asked for a cone. She asked me what kind of cone I wanted, pointing to the array of waffle cones on display that were all topped with chocolate. I said I'd just have a plain waffle cone. "We don't have any of those," she responded. "Never mind," I said. "Just give me the dish." How could they not have any plain waffle cones!? How do they make the chocolate-topped ones?
Karen and I sat outside on a shaded bench and ate our treats. Then we headed back over to the Wicked Cyclone t-shirt booth and I picked one of the more interesting designs. After that we left.
Once again, Six Flags proved itself a master of contradictions: a family park with almost no family rides; a variety of advertised foods that didn't exist; hi-tech convenience devices that were anything but convenient. It also seemed like the park was trying to squeeze every last nickel out of their guests. At no time did I feel, "Wow! That's a bargain!" Sure, we didn't pay anything to get into the park (outside of the initial season pass purchase). But I would rather have paid more money up front and then felt like I was being treated fairly once I was inside. You could buy two cases of soda at a grocery store for the price of one cup in the park! And the whole deal with being forced to rent a locker in order to ride the coaster was a pretty poor move. I have no problem with them suggesting that I rent a locker, but making it mandatory is a poor policy.
Will I go back? Most likely. I do want to ride Wicked Cyclone again. Will I make it a habit, even with a season pass? No. There still isn't much for me to do at the park. As I get older, my options keep shrinking. And the park seems to keep removing the rides I do enjoy. Still, there was a pretty good crowd for a Friday (during school, no less). So maybe I'm in the minority and the management really does know who its primary clientele are. Since food and concession prices continue to rise, the other guests must still be shelling out the cash. But that's not my idea of fun. I don't care how many rides a park has if I don't have a good time overall. It's just sad in a way that there's a huge amusement park in my backyard that I've already paid for, and yet I'd rather travel hours away and pay full price at a different park that offers more of what I'm looking for. Maybe if Six Flags introduced Senior Center: The Ride, I'd be happy.
Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions