Marineland Trip Report - 6/3/12
I'll have the pictures up on my site eventually, but I'm in the process of getting the Cedar Point, Waldameer, and Canada's Wonderland trip reports written first. Enjoy Marineland! ~~~
With another amusement park season in full swing all across North America, it was our chance to yet again combine some vacation travel with an ambitious schedule of park visits - hopefully before the summer crowds peaked. Our destinations included an oft-eyed series of stops around the eastern Great Lakes, with sightseeing in Niagara Falls and Toronto, and a “quick” side trip to that well-known park on a peninsula in Lake Erie.
Wanting a few days to do the tourist thing at each stop, and ample time to take in the parks, we were looking at a full-fledged summer vacation – the kind where your co-workers actually notice your absence. We’d be gone 10 days, including cross-country travel, and our rather circuitous route had us darting back and forth a couple times across the border.
Flying out Friday morning, we were cross-country with relatively little pain (Megan even enjoyed a first class leg, thanks to a booking snafu that cost her a mere 12.5k flyer miles), and we eventually touched down in a soggy Buffalo right on schedule. A quick stop at the conveniently located car rental depot netted us the smallest car I’ve ever driven, but it was able to hit 75 mph safely, and $15 a day is a steal.
Thanks to the deteriorating weather, we were satisfied just to have survived the short drive from the airport to our first lodgings of the trip, a unimpressive but adequate Quality Inn on the US side of Niagara Falls, just a few minutes walk from the action. Instead of braving the deluge, we hit the approachable sports bar downstairs and settled on some beer, wings, and our first of many fried meals.
Despite the rain, we heard the 10pm fireworks rattle the entire hotel, glad that our internal clocks had us up anyway. We perused the location attraction guides, and would have to settle for checking out the sights the next day.
Morning eventually came, a bit sleeplessly thanks in equal parts to the time change and unimpressive mattress and we were soon out into the mist, which was disappointingly still falling from the sky. We started off with a tour of the US side of the falls, which is a well-kept and green State Park, in stark contrast to the tourist bonanza found across the gorge. You know how flashy those Canadians are.
With views of the American Falls, we crossed over to Goat Island, checked out the Bridal Veil Falls, and soon braved the whipping winds and spray across at the Horseshoe Falls. Looping back to our hotel, we’d enjoyed the walk, but found ourselves eager to get to the action, not to mention our upgraded accommodations.
While not interminable, our border crossing took a while, perhaps as we were a part of the weekend rush we’d expected to be ahead of. We eventually arrived at the DoubleTree, seemingly in a quietly separated area between the falls-adjacent madness and some of the other local diversions like Clifton Hill. It was an impressive hotel, with nods to the great lodges of the Pacific Northwest, and even a bit Disney-esque, hinting at the Wilderness Lodge or even Disneyland’s stately Grand Californian – neither of which we would conceivably pay for in this lifetime.
The rest of the day was a series of activities in line with any pilgrimage to Niagara Falls. The Maid of the Mist was our first stop, and was surprisingly enjoyable despite its otherwise obvious function. After a late lunch in their ascribed plaza was a photo-interrupted stroll down the promenade to Table Rock, and a Journey Behind the Falls. The torrent of water provides a physical and aural aesthetic that pictures don’t do justice, and stepping outside to the foot of the falls was just too inundated with water to even take a camera out for.
A quick stop at the hotel had us enjoying happy hour deals at its classy restaurant, and we were primed for a visit to Clifton Hill, a condensed and family-friendly version of the Las Vegas Strip, though certainly more on par with Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, Tennessee or Branson, Missouri. Themed mini-golf and candy shop patronage ensued, and we were off to a great start on the vacation. We called it a night not too much later, and we’d be starting our 6-day park blitz early the next morning.
Day 1 – Marineland, Niagara Falls, Ontario
It wasn’t too early before we were headed to our first park, but unfortunately it wasn’t all that bright either. The passing storm lingered a bit, so we expected a damp but quiet visit. We thought better of walking the three miles to the park (I’m always wary about unnecessary use of rental cars), and the 10am opening meant no need to head out at any ridiculous hour. We arrived without any trouble, found a parking lot filling more for falls visitors than park-goers, and were at the ticket booths just shy of 10am.
Admission was a bit steep, upwards of $50 per person, and it was unfortunately sans any sort of discount. For once I was one of those suckers who would pay the gate price. For some reason, they didn’t open the booths until exactly 10am, but we were first in our line, and still among the first in the park. The target was obviously Dragon Mountain, and no one else we entered with looked nearly as determined in their destination.
I wouldn’t say this was a coaster that has long eluded me, per se, but it’s one of the first ones I ever learned about. Multiple trips to Niagara Falls growing up (I am a native New Yorker, I’ll have you remember) led to acquiring all sorts of brochures, and Marineland isn’t shy about their signature attraction. Sure, there are all sorts of animal exhibits, but this Sea World wanna-be had a major coaster long before that Busch chain bothered with their first thrill ride.
1983 found the premier of Dragon Mountain, known for its sprawling layout and rather unique elements, especially considering the era in which it was built. Speaking of sprawling, this park is known for being expansive, with long stretches not only between sections of the park but even the attractions in a particular section. The hike up to the stately and looming freefall tower is notably grueling, but we were going to make our first stop even further into the park.
Fittingly, the initial entrance to the ride is just the height check area, and requires a walk along the hillside, above the ride’s finale, the signature bow-tie double inversion element, which is hidden by some of the park’s immense foliage. We arrived at this checkpoint to find it roped off, having made it back there before even the ride attendants. I guess they didn’t get to enter the park until 10am either.
It was a few minutes in the balky weather before they had everything up and running, and we could hear the single train being put through its paces as we and a handful of other eager riders joined us to head towards the station. The iconic dragon’s mouth is a nice touch for a park that actually does an impressive job of themeing when it wants to, and overlooks or ignores other areas of the park seemingly at random.
It’s an odd concurrence, as the place feels well designed and run down somehow at the same time. Several closed and repurposed structures and all that space give it an eerie ghost-town vibe in places, but what is being used is actually presented rather impressively; it may not be at the Disney or Universal level of detail, but easily on par with the Busch Gardens.
Into the entrance, and through what anatomically would be the Dragon’s esophagus, we came upon the empty station after a disorienting trip through the short, dark queue. Having been surpassed en route, we settled for the second row, and were sent on our way by the trio of teenaged ride operators.
Part of the aura of the ride is around its deliberate lift hill, which isn’t just long, but is also absurdly slow. It allows riders to almost forget they’re on a coaster as it follows the incline of the hillside if climbs perfectly, almost providing the sensation of traveling completely level. If your view up the hill is obscured, your only landmark along the way is passing through shed-type structure about halfway up, perhaps the inspiration for Expedition Everest’s lift-side shrine. While not exactly themed, it’s an interesting change from the lush plant life, and it actually serves as the lift house for an entirely separate lift chain that the trains switch to at the mid-point. The speeds are synched perfectly as the transition is otherwise unnoticeable.
Over the crest, the train takes the classic Arrow dip and U-turn into the first drop and dives off the peak of the hillside to the waiting double loops. Here’s where you’ll notice something lacking from the Arrow coaster approaching 30 years old – anything approaching absurd roughness. I wouldn’t classify it as glass-smooth, but momentary jostles are the exception and seemingly the result of a clunklily-designed transition the company was known to make from time to time, and less to do with the trains themselves or the condition of the ride.
The double loops are taken with nice speed, giving an even and decent force, not nearly as awkward as some of Arrow’s earliest inversions can provide. The train makes a curve and climbs back up the hillside, and heads into the famous double helix, known more for its former state of regrettably unfinished theming than the intensity of the element itself. Now it takes place in a mock-crater of a volcano (or something), but it sat for years as an unfinished steel latticework, a testament to the park’s well-known lack of follow-through on its admirably ambitious projects.
It’s not taken with any great speed, more about the fun than intensity, though that could be said of much of the ride. After the spin, there’s a dive into the first of two surprisingly long tunnels cut through the mountain itself. Here the ride maxes out on speed, hitting its lowest point in a sweeping left-turn still somewhat high above what seems to be a flood plain. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Volcano’s similar high-speed maneuver, though this one hits some brakes right where that one accelerates into a higher gear.
Not a complete stop, but it’s a bit surprising how much momentum is lost. If anything, it gives riders a chance to contemplate what lies in the tunnel at the end of this brake run. Once back in the dark, there are several twists and turns, and after straightening out the speed again accumulates. The light at the end of tunnel literally begins to shine, and the disorientation of being outside again is more than doubled by entry into the bow-tie element.
It’s a sudden pull-up at the exit of the tunnel, and a twisting inversion to the left, and the element is repeated, sending riders right back in the same direction. From there the track pulls up out of the valley, and a left turn finds the final brakes just outside the station. If that seemed like a lot, it was. This ride is long. 5500 feet long. But since much of its length is taken at a somewhat modest speed (though in unique elements, to be sure), it feels even longer than this gaudy number.
And that pretty much sums up my overall impression the coaster: beyond one-of-a-kind and delightfully rideable. What it may lack in enduring intensity it more than makes up for with wide variety of elements and moments of excitement for sure. While not exactly fitting in the top tier of my rankings, it easily found a spot in the top quarter, and easily lived up to my long-standing expectations.
It was an easy call to loop back around (no staying on despite the completely empty station, an annoyingly fastidious and equally unjustifiable policy) and this time we stayed ahead of the small group and got the front row. Much the same experience here, though adding even more of a faceful of the persistent drizzle.
A third ride found us in the back row, adding some nice airtime during the first drop, and only a modest amount of additional roughness. Megan had had enough, and bailed on the fourth ride, but I was right back in the last row, and more than pleased with how little endurance was required to re-ride.
Considering the expanse the park took up, we’d want to be efficient with our visit, and headed down to the back of the park where several four-legged creatures resided. The Elk were stately, and the Buffalo were truly massive, though the deer were further afield and seemingly skittish. All were in rather large pens, but I can’t imagine any one of the animals would have much trouble either clearing or pummeling the fencing were it so inclined. To our relief, no stampedes ensued. Heading back towards Steel Dragon, we revisited the bear exhibit we’d only glanced at first thing, and spent a few minutes eyeing their lack of activity in the dreary weather.
Nearby was a flat ride called Magic Experience, which was something between a Monster and a Scrambler, with a nice, if a bit creepy, ‘Dancing Bears’ theme. Our wait was just for the next cycle, though that would not come, as a result of a sick rider. It wasn’t clear if his friends were joking about the ride needing to be stopped, but it only took a few more spins before he lost what I was assume was his breakfast. If only I hadn’t been looking right at him while he did it.
It was an easy call to move on, and a tea-cups ride was the only other attraction in this part of the park. Not exactly the usual intense spinning we aim for, but it was novel to be able to spin as soon as we got into the car.
Moving on, we crossed the zig-zag bridges over the fish feeding lake, and the koi seemed to follow us as we did. We skipped one of the many opportunities to buy feed and just enjoyed the proximity of the wildlife.
Some real interaction was found at the Discovery Cove, a large pool full of several Beluga whales, viewable at water level and underneath. It was startling both how many and how close you could get to them, as several would often pop their heads above the surface of the water looking for a bite. Around the corner was the underwater viewing area where several of the pool sections were visible. There we saw a lot more activity, and even had a personal encounter with one of the inhabitants, as it seemed to be fascinated by Megan. Following her as she moved and waved; it was a moment of inter-species contact worth the price of admission right there.
Back to rides, Sky Hawk was next, an old-school and rare Huss spinning tower ride – imagine if a scrambler did it’s spinning at the top of an 80 foot tower. I had fond memories of braving just such a ride in my youth, Condor at The Great Escape, and this was a delightful throwback.
A couple more classic spinning rides was next, a Wave Swinger, and Megan was a little too spun for the Flying Dragon just across the way, a Zierer Flying Carpet. While both were somewhat generic in the ride experience, they were each impressively implemented with a rather detailed medieval treatment.
The one show offered by the park was back by the entrance, so we finished the loop since we were headed in that direction anyway, and took a break for lunch. We’d want to be back to hit Sky Screamer, the hilltop S&S combo tower that simply loomed over the center of the park, and mysteriously opened two hours after the park did.
For now we hit Hungry Bear, coincidentally sharing the name of a Disneyland restaurant, I’m sure. Eschewing a typical park burger, I went with a ¼ rotisserie chicken, a nice change of pace. I also couldn’t turn down some beer, a sizable Labatt’s for $6. Megan played it safe with a burger. The food was good enough, and the setting was tops with picnic tables in a tree-filled knoll, with a live performance on the bandstand to boot. By a Canadian Grammy-winner, no less.
With just enough time to chug the last of my beer, we caught the 1pm showing of the otherwise unnamed show. The poolside stadium was barely ¼ full, so it wasn’t hard finding good last-minute seats. The performances by some feisty sea lions, a visibly aged walrus, and several acrobatic dolphins were a nice spectacle, and pretty much all you could hope for outside of Sea World.
In a momentary reversion to being a crazy enthusiast, it was time to get my token kiddie coaster credit. While hitting the 300 coaster milestone was a proud, if weird, accomplishment last fall, it’s never easy to forget that quiet years can sneak up on you. Trips like this help mitigate that, but they’re not always feasible year after year. (Sometimes we dare go places with no parks.) The quadruple cycle on the truly tiny Zierer Ladybug coaster was actually quite bearable, and as the only other coaster in the park, brought my total up to 309, and five on the season. There would be more to come, for sure.
Heading back into the heart of the park, we passed by Friendship Cove, with a similar setup to Discovery Cove, though with a handful of Orca whales in addition to some more Belugas. As we rounded the pool, it was easy to notice that there were more attendants than guests, and it was hard to imagine this park in the black on a day like this, despite us paying full-fare even.
We steeled ourselves for the hike up to Sky Screamer, and passed by barely a handful of other guests, jealous they were headed downhill. The value of the effort became clearer with each step, as not only did we ascend above the park, but the surrounding area as well. Mist from the falls came into view, and all the hotels and towers nearby. The view from the top of the ride is legendary, and this was already a nice start.
Thanks to the plaza being all but empty, we could easily choose the prime seats facing the falls. The ride itself is a combo tower, offering the sudden force of the shot upwards, as well as the more drawn out climb to the top and airtime-inducing burst down. The shot upwards was fun and offered a glimpse of the view, but the climb to the top for the drop was just unbelievable.
I’ve seen a lot of amazing views from the tops of some impressive rides – the Santa Clarita valley below Tatsu, the Mediterranean from Dragon Khan, and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from the two Giant Dippers and Coney Island Cyclone respectively, just to name a few.
This view was their equal, a sky-high view of one of the natural wonders of the world with no windows and no floor to obscure the top-to-bottom vista. It was worth the price of admission a second time over, not to mention the climb up here. One glimpse was not enough, so we (unnecessarily) looped around, and got another 30 second eye-full. I took a third ride, and as the sky began to unload, we were back down into the park.
I wanted to revisit Dragon Mountain, despite the rain, so we headed back there. As things eased a bit, we finally got that ride on Magic Experience, thankful for the wash job Mother Nature and provided. I got an additional front and back ride in on Dragon Mountain, skipping a cycle due to a temporary cloudburst as Megan revisited the bears and smartly hunted for shelter.
The last couple stops were some more animal encounters. First was a lap around the Deer Park, back across from Sky Screamer. Not entirely as friendly as what you would find in a proper petting zoo, the prospect of food did draw out a few of the braver deer. Mostly they kept a keen eye on anything that moved and avoided a few ill-behaved children who chased after them.
We finished our visit off with a stop in the aquarium, just inside the entrance. Clearly one of the older structures in the park, the fish smell and outdated environs validated putting this off until last. Like the coves, an underwater viewing area was below, though above the water was an indoor stadium set-up that seemed to currently go unused. We took a seat in the bleachers and watched a stoic sea lion stand at attention in front of the enclosure’s entrance. Not much else to speak of here.
With that, we were ready to head out. Considering we had five more park days ahead, we didn’t want to push ourselves too hard. The five hours or so we had spent felt like plenty to take in almost all this park had to offer to your average adult guest. We headed back to the hotel for an afternoon respite before going out for dinner and enjoying a night viewing of the falls and fireworks.
We’d be off for Sandusky in the morning, but for now we were happy with our visit to this interesting park. It’s like many others in a number of ways, but certainly stands out with its own distinctive personality, mostly in good ways. I can’t say a thrill seeker would find much cause beyond the token, if not requisite visit to ride Dragon Mountain, but what that ride offered in the way of a fascinatingly unique experience really is mirrored by the park itself.
Coaster Count: 331 (268/63)
Favorite Steel, Wood: Montu, Thunderhead
www.gregscoasterphotos.com ← Go there! It's good!
They used to have a travel and outdoor show here in Cleveland back in the day and I remember as a kid when Dragon Mountain was brand new. I still have the schematic drawing that appeared in their brochure for the ride, stating it was scheduled to open June 30, 1983.
If it wasn't for needing a passport I would have liked to visit not just for Dragon Mountain but for a lot of the unique flats there. I take it their Topple Tower is closed since the Dollywood lawsuit against Huss.
I haven't been to Fantasy Island, so I can't compare. Certainly looks way more like a traditional park than what ML does.
G-dog, I probably first heard about DM in the 80s too - it's an obscure coaster icon. Definitely worth the visit. Again, not the most thrilling ride, but easily one of the most interesting.
The flats were fun, but the only thing remotely modern (aside from the S&S towers) was the shuttered Topple Tower. Right you are: closed.
Favorite Steel, Wood: Montu, Thunderhead
www.gregscoasterphotos.com ← Go there! It's good!
Marineland offers the unique Arrow big looper, Sky Screamer, Sky Hawk, and Niagara Falls. That seems like the best choice of "small" parks. I haven't been up there in over thirty years, but this is what I think that I know.
The park's Silver Comet is a decent CCI wood coaster, much better and re-rideable than the Predator at Darien Lake. Also add in the Mind Warp, an insane Technical Park Loop Fighter, and there are a few attractions aimed towards adults.