Two weeks ago I finally found the time to visit Playland at the PNE in Vancouver. Well, Playland in itself was definitely not a destination I would have considered visiting if it wasn´t for the classic wooden coaster. The ride is simply called "Coaster" and celebrates its 50th birthday this year.
I am not one of those "coaster counters" who have to ride every kiddie-coaster in it´s ever repeating layouts, only to be photographed with a mouth-breathing grin, holding up a sign that says "500" some day.
Anyway, "Coaster" is a classic woody with some features you won´t find anywhere else so I just had to ride it.
In all honesty, Playland is a tragic dump which resembles a sad funfair on a forgotten parking lot, somewhere in a not-so-pretty-part of an otherwise beautiful city. So, it was actually good timing that we decided to pay a visit after our involuntary date with a Skunk the night before.
"Coaster" was built by Carl Phare in 1958 and currently holds the 20th place in the relatively respected Mitch Hawker´s Wooden Coaster Poll 2007 (out of 178 listed woodies). Among the top 20 it is the oldest continuously operating ride. All the others (except one) were built within the last 15 years.
Looking at it from the ground you would hardly think that this relatively harmless looking ride could offer anything worth to write home about. All you can see is the lifthill and the elevated turns, which are taken at fairly low speed.
If you are not a coaster dork you will not notice the unique rolling stock, which was specially built for this ride and no other ride on the planet uses the same design.
The trains consist of 8 single-bench cars with flanged wheels. Similar cars are enjoying a renaissance on newly built wooden coasters, since they track much better and are able to maneouver tighter and wilder turns than the usual two- or three row cars. As a simple, but genius device the open front car is equipped with a small oil canister that sprays oil onto the track as needed. This way, "Coaster" always runs as it should: Greased, lubed and wet!
Let´s hop onboard! Thanks to a very fast crew and a refreshingly easy loading procedure the two operating trains (three are available) guarantee a fast moving line.
If you have ridden any wooden coasters recently you might remember that you have to wear a tight fitting seatbelt and an obstrusive, testicle crushing, individual lapbar would pin you into your seat. Padded seat dividers would eliminate any physical contact with your riding partner.
"Coaster" has none of this. You sit down and pull down a simple bar that locks at "elbow height". The smaller you are, the more unsheltered you will feel, but hopefully you will have someone to cling on to.
"Well it can´t be that wild" I thought to myself after seeing this lack of security measures and headed for the last row.
"Dork", Coaster thought back.
Up the hill we went and I was throwing up my hands in giddy expectation. The train immediately headed down the fairly steep first drop and my hands shot back down to the bar as my ass flew out of my seat because it wasn´t quick enough to follow. That´s what we coaster-connoisseurs call "Airtime".
A second, steep and deep drop followed after a slow turnaround and by this time I knew that this ride earned its spot in that poll the hard way.
Two drops and another turnaround later the train passed an elevated brake run, which secures multiple trains running on the course. Luckily it was turned off and from this point on "Coaster" made sure to show us who was boss! The greased track, the warm weather and constant two-train operation had the trains flying over the well worn course.
With ever increasing speed the consecutive hills got lower and the turns get tighter. The train flies through fan-turns and a "reverse curve", constantly subjecting the rider to a rapid change in lateral and horizontal forces. Despite all the rattling and rolling, "Coaster" is remarkably well running. There is no dreaded "washboard effect" or "jackhammering", which so many other wooden rides suffer from.
The final third of the ride was, without a doubt, some of the most extreme and wildest ride I ever had. The negative forces, which usually occur as you fly over a parabolic hill, forced you to stand up in your car! Thighs met the metal bar and as soon as you forced yourself to sit down again, another burst of negative g-force would make you jump back up. No one would hold up their hands anymore. We were all hanging on for dear life and enjyoing every moment of it. THIS is how a coaster ride should be.
There is an especially evil hill towards the end of the ride which is taken at "ludicrous speed" and a quick succession of three extreme "ejecting" manouvers follow it.
Rolling back into the station, braked by skid-brakes which are still manually operated by a guy throwing himself against a giant lever, I beamed with exitement and bruises. They don´t build rides like this anymore. Modern woodies are designed and calculated by computers to offer you a safe, but simulated wild ride.
The USA still has many old, classic coasters but the sue-happy culture has forced the operators to get rid of all the things that make Vancouvers "Coaster" so wild and fun. Around ten rounds later, I was exhausted and bruised but I had bright, beaming smile on my face.
You don´t ride "Coaster"...it rides you! And it hurts so good.