Friday, April 12, 2019

Five Batshit Crazy Rides

Okay everybody, put on your silly hats, because today we're all about really weird rides.

As a Disney World-obsessed child growing up on the other side of the country, although Disney was a major influence on my interests, the fact is that it was not an everyday, every week, or even every-year thing. Just as big of an influence on me, in those multi-year stretches between the family vacations, were less-ambitious examples of theming: malls, miniature golf courses, oddball restaurants, and regional amusement parks. So while the obsession really took hold between the ages of eight and ten or so, the fact is that I have more, and stronger childhood memories of something like Lake Compounce or Riverside Park or Lake George than I do Walt Disney World.

On this blog, we spend a lot of time talking about the prime cuts: the Disneys and Universals of the world, which offer beautifully, fully realized environments. But just as compelling to me are the lesser steaks, the parks that operate on smaller budgets and milder ambitions, that make do with less. They may not be as rich and juicy, but there's a lot of flavor to chew on in places like Knobels, or The Enchanted Forest, or Silver Dollar City.

Which is maybe a longwinded way of saying: I love Pirates of the Caribbean, but I love the weird shit too, and there is simply not enough of it on this blog. And while these five examples may not per se be on the same level as a handmade mini golf course in Michigan, they aren't exactly on the Disney or Universal or Efteling level either. What they are is truly, truly bizarre, sometimes ambitious, fascinating, and, yes... batshit crazy.

Mammut Tree, Conny Land, Switzerland

We'll start with something fairly mild. As the park says, "to conquer this tree, you need nerves of steel"!

A landmark in Conny Land, the Mammut Tree looks like a gigantic redwood with its top blown off. On the ground level, pedestrians can walk around and through the root system of the tree. In the air, a cable car takes riders through a hole in its top. Looks harmless, right?

Except! when the car passes through the terrifying Mammut Tree, doors close around the car and it's trapped and, then... well maybe you should just watch the video, but there's wind, sparks, fireballs, and... yodeling.

Conny Land has other oddities, like a shuttle coaster that stops you upside down and a Universe of Energy-inflected dinosaur dark ride, but it's the weird, inexplicable "mammoth tree" that captures my heart. It's like a non-sequitir given physical form.

Gremlins Invasion, Warner Brothers Movie World, Germany

When I was about ten years old, Gremlins was one of my favorite things in the world. It's the perfect "starter" scary movie - crazy, a little gory if you're ten, suspenseful, and sweet. It's gone on to be recognized as something of a classic in years since, but in the depths of the 90s with the world having moved on all I could do is rent the thing and keep spreading the word and wondering if I was the only one who loved this movie as much as I did.

Suffice to say, had I had access to this attraction as a ten year old, Gremlins Invasion / The Great Gremlins Adventure would maybe be my favorite ride ever.

The premise begins with absolute lunacy and only gets weirder from there. Passing through a receptionist office and into a screening room at "Warner Brothers Studio", visitors are treated to a collection of bloopers from films past and present hosted by... Sandra Bullock? Okay...

After several minutes of this, we suddenly cut to the set of ALF, where ALF is chasing the household cat under a sink. He's then attacked by the Gremlins, who electrocute the cameraman shooting the television program. As ALF encourages viewers to flee, the projector breaks and the famous "film break" segment of Gremlins 2 plays. An employee rushes into the theater to hurry the audience to a load area where the ride operator has been killed by the Gremlins, but no worry - ALF and Gizmo are at the ride controls!

Some context here. There were two versions of this attraction, one in Australia and one in Germany. The Australia version featured Beetlejuice, which I suppose makes some sense as that character was then at the height of his popularity and was also a fourth-wall breaking, horror comedy kind of character. If you squint a little, you can see why somebody would make the connection.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, ALF had been something of a cultural phenomenon, and he took a much larger role in the German edition of the attraction, piloting the vehicles through the Warner Brothers Film Archive and appearing in the pre show. While touring a film archive under attack by Gremlins while Beetlejuice appears and cracks wise is plenty bizarre in itself, the inclusion of ALF as a major character elevates the simply weird into the truly sublime.

You wanna know what? This ride is pretty good. It uses entirely dimensional sets, it has decent gags, and it's perfect for the Gremlins - attacking a movie studio and re-enacting scenes from Singing in the Rain and The Adventures of Robin Hood. There's a decent Pepper's Ghost gag where ALF and Gizmo electrocute a number of Gremlins, and another moment where the ride vehicles pass each other and trailing behind the second vehicle is a ride car filled with Gremlins. The finale where ALF arrives in a fire truck has never made much sense, but if you've gotten this far into the ride, what do you honestly expect? The Gremlins pack themselves into boxes, the film archive burns, and the perfect late 80s pop culture dream state ends.

In the past ten years, Gremlins Invasion has graduated from obscurity to minor infamy due to the ever-vigilant novelty consuming nature of social media, but right there at the intersection of crazy and possibly good sits a ride starring Sandra Bullock and ALF that was torn down for a Van Helsing coaster. It is, in its' own small way, perfect.

Donkey's Sherry, Shima Spain Village, Japan

This one only exists thanks to the diligence of park designer Dave Cobb, who knew weird when he saw it back in the 90s. Donkey's Sherry is vastly bizarre and makes one wonder what other strange rides once existed across the globe that were never documented and since have been lost.

A fever dream starring anthropomorphic donkeys, rather than the cute Disney-style characters you may expect, this is entirely "musician of Bremen" style donkeys, upright animals wearing clothes. As the ride begins, the donkeys are manufacturing the sherry, crushing grapes in huge wooden vats, drinking the sherry, dancing in the town square, getting drunk.... and then things get weird.

The absolute masterstroke of Donkey's Sherry, if it can be said to have one, is after all of the escalating insanity with executioners, conquistadors, and a burning city, is the puzzling final scene, where we are left to wonder if the whole thing was the drunken hallucination of an animal. Honestly, we're left to wonder if it wasn't a drunken hallucination of *ourselves*, but no matter. there may be plenty of questionable in Donkey's Sherry, but find me another ride that wordlessly suggests a twist ending with nary a bit of narration.

Looney Tunes Adventure, Warner Brothers Movie World, Germany

Here I go picking on poor Movie World Germany again. For what it's worth, this park has a really interesting history which predates its Warner Brothers branding in the 90s, and Warner did a lot of interesting things with it when they bought it. It was the only place in the world with a rapids ride themed after The Never-ending Story, a stunt show based on Police Academy, and a Batman Returns motion simulator. It was.... very odd.

Much like Gremlins Invasion, Looney Tunes Adventure was a copy of a similar ride originally built at Movie World Gold Coast in Australia. In both attractions, we enter the Looney Tunes Studio where a pre-show room has an actor interacting with animated figures of the Looney Tunes characters. It seems we're just in time to participate in the filming of their newest picture, to be set in, depending on one's location, either the outback or the Black Forest of Bavaria. So off we go into the ride and board a boat...

Where even to begin? The animatronics were designed by Sally Corporation, and honestly with the exception of Bugs, who's very difficult to translate into three dimensions, I think they're pretty good. But mein gott, this ride is just strange. The juxtaposition of the Looney Tunes, faithfully realized in three dimensions, with realistically created trees, rocks, and Bavarian architecture is just strange. But what pushes the whole thing from peculiar to haunting is the fact that there is absolutely no musical soundtrack during the ride! The Looney Tunes act out their comedy at the sluggish pace provided by mid-range animatronics circa 1996, viewed from a slow moving boat, and scored to a backdrop of birdsong and croaking frogs. The result is queerly suspenseful, but strangely compelling, in a mirror-world kind of way.

Oh, and another thing. I gave a simplified version of the actual story in the description above, because it was already confusing enough that their was a somewhat similar but also very different Looney Tunes Adventure in Australia. In the pre-show, you see, we're welcomed to "Hollywood" (the sign is on the mural in the background) and told that Bugs Bunny has gone to Germany to scout new film locations! In order to make the film, we must, and I kid you not, dig a hole through the earth to Germany. Speedy Gonzales asks if he can get good tacos in Germany, and no, I didn't just make that up. So we're led to the set of an old Science Fiction film, where Marvin the Martian is at the controls, and we ride his gigantic drill, Flight to the Moon style with televisions and a shaking floor, to the Black Forest. This is why Bugs says "Welcome to Germany!" when we see him in the first scene.

So at the Looney Tunes Adventure at Movie World Germany, we're transported to Hollywood for a pre-show, then through back immediately to Germany in the most bizarre way possible. Here's a video with both of the pre-show rooms, and a better view of the baby dragon encountered at the finale:

What can I say? It's strange, very strange, and I wish like hell I could have seen it. I'm sure the same kid who would ride El Rio del Tiempo six times and who grew up to write this blog would have loved every strange moment of it.

(Thanks very much to this blog post and this wiki article for helping make sense of blurry videos in other languages!)

Hollywood Tour, Phantasialand, Germany

I don't know what it is about Germany that just breeds crazy rides, but I'm well aware that 4 of the 5 on this list are located in Germany or Switzerland - and I didn't even get into Europa Park! This is also the only true knockoff on this list, but boy howdy, it's a dilly.

Phantasialand is honestly a very well realized park, with compelling rides and far, far above average textures and theming. One simply has to look at the facade and queue of their enclosed drop tower, Mystery Castle, to see that they're working at a much higher level than their competitors. Their version of Main Street is a lushly realized vision of Berlin at the height of its pre-WWI spendor. They have a very interesting Chinese variation of the Haunted Mansion, one of the most inspired such "reinterpretations" in the world. Oh, and there's Hollywood Tour, which is honestly insane.

To get on this ride you climb up! up! up! many staircases until you reach a barely decorated loading room where an animatronic of a director holding a martini - who may or may not be Alfred Hitchcock - addresses you. Then you board a boat, drop into a cavern, and...

The type of internet commentator who likes to shriek that any less than perfectly realistic animatronic is "creepy" will have a field day here, but really, those are the cheap shots. This ride is almost perversely strange, and the low budget figures are just part of it. It's the whole thing, the strange music, the slow pace of the boats, the reckless and entirely bizarre idea to replicate a mashup of the Great Movie Ride and the Universal Studios Tram Tour as an animatronic boat ride...

I love, for instance, that it recreates the Jaws scene at the Tram Tour in bizarrely specific detail - including the now-removed fishing guy in a boat who's pulled underwater. The entrance from The Great Movie Ride is there, as is Wizard of Oz, but in other cases they're riffing and coming up with their own weird versions of iconic scenes, like Frankenstein or an unspecified giant spider movie. The whole thing builds up to an experience that's appropriately named... it's oneiric, half remembered, hallucinated.

It's a mutt, but I love mutt rides - after all, the Disney and Universal park franchises now have options all over the world, but there's only one Hollywood Dream.

What's your favorite batshit crazy ride from outside the world of the billion-dollar attractions? Leave the details in the comments, and if you enjoy reading about Theme Park design, check out our archives here. Thanks for reading!