April 15th, in addition to being Tax Day, was the first day of the Hard Rock Park sound check. This soft opening, lasting from 4pm to 10pm, was a can't-miss event for me.
I'll skip the nonsense about getting to the park, thus saving you some tedious complaints about how the parking plaza wasn't quite ready for the flood of traffic (it appears from subsequent visits that this problem has been mostly corrected). I'll gloss over the issues we had getting our Annual Passes processed (first day system glitches. No biggie). Let's cut right to the meat and potatoes here: what do you get once you pass through the entrance gates?
ALL ACCESS ENTRY PLAZA
Very much in the vein of Main Street USA or Port of Entry, this area of the park slowly immerses you into the overall thematic arc of the park. It's nowhere near as detailed as the aforementioned Disney or IOA interpretations, but it gets the point across. You're entering something different. The shops in this area range from a sweet shop ("I Want Candy") to a coffeehouse ("Amp'd") to a very large merchandise store (the location of which, it must be noted, reinforces how much they aped IOA's design). You pass under an archway to approach the park's central lagoon. As you near the curved rail along the edge of the lagoon, a glance back along the entrance walkway reveals that you've been walking along a large image of a guitar, complete with six bubbling fountains where the pick would strike them. It's a very clever visual that I imagine will be lost on many visitors who don't take the time to fully absorb their surroundings.
At this point, you must choose your course. A clockwise rotation through the park leads you into the Rock & Roll Heaven section, while counterclockwise goes into Cool Country. Since the majority of the crowd was heading straight for the Led Zeppelin coaster, we used contrary logic and took a right into the Cool Country area.
This area of the park is geared towards the country set as well as aficionados of southern-fried rock. But let's get to the attractions:
Muddin' Monster Race - a huss spinning ride, presumedly geared towards kids. They were trying mightily to have this open, but there was some issues with the restraints not popping open. Still, looks like fun for the youngins'.
Just a-Swingin' is the park's obligatory wave swinger. Meant to evoke memories of sitting on the swing on your front porch, the first few rotations are relatively mild. Once the cycle really kicks in, however, you're in for a surprisingly fast (and fairly long) ride. The seats, incidentally, are wider than you'll find in most other parks. They've even got some double seats on there.
Eagles - Life in the Fast Lane. I was concerned when the name of this ride changed in March. It seemed like they were in a pinch, and I didn't think that was a good sign. Adding to my concerns was the fact that this was a Vekoma mine train. The only Vekomas I've ever really liked were the Deja Vus, and we all know how well those worked out.
Well, I was thoroughly surprised by this ride. The onboard audio works well, and the ride is terribly fun. There's also a few effects along the way that added a little extra depth. My only real complaint here is that there was no apparent landscaping done, so if you look down along the way all you can see is dirt and footers. A little extra work here can lead to a much more fulfilling ride.
The last attraction in this area is the Ice House Theater. Since the show in there ("Country on the Rocks") seemed pretty twang-heavy, we skipped it this time around.
BORN IN THE USA
This area of the park is all about...well, the USA. There's a lot of attractions in this area, so let's get to them:
Shake, Rattle 'n' Rollercoaster is a Vekoma roller skater. Judging by the sign, artwork, and sand they're going for a beach theme here, kinda a throw back to pierside amusement parks. It's a very short ride, however - probably the shortest of its kind I've ever encountered.
Kids Rock State Park is a children's play area with some upcharge attractions (a climbing wall and a sky walk). There's also a large multi-level fort to play in with ladders and slides. Considering the Slippery When Wet coaster goes over the majority of the Kids Rock area, I'm guessing this is going to wind up being a water area when everything is up and running (Slippery When Wet wasn't open yet).
The most questionable attractions in the park are also here - guests at the Sound Check were more than a little surprised to see some previously unannounced carnival rides appear. The Sole Train is a small Zamperla train ride, while the Dune Buggies attraction is a very standard "ride around in circles" ride. Looming in the background was a portable coaster (the name on it was Racing) that looks straight from the fairgrounds. I haven't seen any official word on why these attractions are there, but they stick out like a sore thumb. I understand there's a lot of concern over the total number of attractions in the park, but throwing in carnival rides is hopefully just a band aid while they come up with some new ideas.
As you move further into Born in the USA, you come to the large 10,000 person capacity amphitheater. There's a few food stops and shops along the way, leading to Funky-Town. This is where you'll find the bulk of the park's games. While some of them are unique and clever (Whac-a-Boy-Band replaces the traditional Whac-a-Mole), it doesn't change the fact that they're games. The staff here is aggressive, but not to the point of being annoying. Once you get through that area, you'll come to Garage Jam!
Garage Jam! is a two-level foam play area. You know the drill here: there's lots of foam balls on the floor. You fill a bag up, run upstairs, then use the cannons to shoot the foam balls at the poor souls who are still downstairs trying to fill their bags. By the way, those cannons have pretty good range...
Certainly my favorite area of the park, British Invasion is a very well done tribute to the UK.
Punk Pit - I'm not sure how they got this one past the insurance lawyers, but bless 'em for pulling it off. Punk Pit is essentially an oversized inflatable bounce house (actually two of them. To the left is the children's side, while the right has the adult version). It's amazingly fun in here - bouncing around, slamming into walls, leaping over obstacles, body-checking an unsuspecting friend. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't very concerned about this attraction. Adults don't remember how to be kids, and their bodies certainly don't remember how to take a good fall. A bad bounce here could lead to some serious bodily harm, and I don't see how the park would be able to absolve itself of blame. These type of attractions are popular overseas, but us Yanks are a wee bit too sue-happy to be able to have fun stuff like this (two words: lawn darts).
London Cab Ride is up next. This is an amazingly fun twirl-and-hurl attraction. It's a bizarre combination of a scrambler and the tea cups. There's three different spinning forces at work here, and they're all going at it pretty quickly.
Night in White Satin - The Trip is also in this area. From what I can tell, the point of this dark ride is to recreate for the rider what it feels like to be, well...tripping. The 3D effects are hit or miss, but I liked more than I disliked. My personal favorite is a room in which you're moving quite slowly, but the projected imagery ahead of you is moving quite quickly. Disney geeks should immediately be reminded of World of Motion...
All the King's Horses is next on the rotation. This is a pretty basic carousel. I'd have loved to have seen them go with something a little more showy, like a double decker or something. But carousels seem to be a dying breed, so I can understand not wanting to drop the extra money there.
Roadies Stunt Show is also in this area. We saw the first public show and suffice it to say there were some glitches here or there. The majority of the stunts revolve around gymnastics (lots of bouncing and flipping), but there's some good gags in there and a little pyro for good measure (and, in my humble opinion, the girl in it was smoking hot). Once they get the bugs worked out, I think this will be one of the better shows of its type.
Maximum RPM is in this area also. Not much to say about this coaster, as it wasn't open yet. The ferris wheel lift seems like an unnecessary gimmick, but the ride itself looks like it's going to be pretty fun. While Premiere's track record isn't flawless, they've delivered a lot of good rides. No reason not to expect this to be good.
Magic Mushroom Ride - This is a troika decorated with mushrooms and blacklight friendly colors. Some of our friends got stuck here when the restraints wouldn't open. It took about five minutes before they realized that some genius has put a mushroom over the emergency release. First day glitches, folks.
ROCK & ROLL HEAVEN
The final area of the park is Rock & Roll Heaven. With a show, a water play area, and one ride this is by far the area of the park most in need of more. We never saw the Malibu Beach Party show in process, although we saw someone on a motorcycle practicing stunts in the theater. Reggae River Falls is a small water area, with one of those infernal buckets that dump water every five or so minutes. Only one ride left...
Led Zeppelin - The Ride. Let's get this out of the way first. The loading system here is strange. There's a main room where people are lined up, then they're led into a small room with a "preshow" that has some documentary style footage of Led Zeppelin as well as an interesting multimedia presentation where you hear the first few minutes of "Whole Lotta Love." As you near the section that plays onride, the doors open and you go board the train. This feels like time that could be spent on the ride, but as far as I can tell they weren't stacking trains. If you think of this preshow as the last five minutes of waiting in line, you won't get too annoyed. But I can't help but wonder how sick people who do lots of re-riding are going to be of the whole presentation.
Before I get into the ride, I have to say this: this coaster is amazingly silent. I love the B&M roar, so it was a little offputting to not be able to hear that. Of course, they had to do this so riders would be able to hear the onboard audio (it probably makes the neighbors happy, too).
Onto the ride itself: it's a solid B&M coaster. The first two-thirds of the ride are very intense; this is probably the most intense B&M sitdown I've ever ridden. You're hit with five inversions within about 45 seconds. It'd be easy to accuse the ride of having a weak ending (post MCBR, all you get is a helix and one more inversion), but after the kick-butt first half you're still trying to catch your breath anyways.
The onboard audio works really well with the ride, although early on it's difficult to hear it over the screams of other riders. Around midway through the first loop the drums kick back in and you should hear the music for the rest of the course (in my case, there was a glitch and the music died at the MCBR. This glitch has reportedly since been corrected).
Each night at the park will end with the Bohemian Rhapsody fireworks/laser show. This is by far one of the best park fireworks shows that isn't in a park owned by Disney. Due to their proximity to the airport, they're unable to use some of the larger size shells that you'd see in Illuminations, but I think they make so with what they have admirably. There's a bit too much "dancing fountains" for my taste, but still. It's a really fun show.
All told, it took us about three hours to complete the rotation of the park. Crowds for the sound check were pretty light, so I'm sure once they're fully open your results will vary. But let's get down to the nitty-gritty, shall we:
Atmosphere - they've done a really great job, especially in the British Invasion area. There's a lot of visual flourishes throughout the park that attentive guests will thoroughly enjoy. The music in each area works within the theme, and I didn't hear more that 2 or 3 songs that I didn't like. Each area also has smaller stages for bands to perform. We saw groups performing at each one we passed. They also have enthusiastic performers roaming the park. We saw jugglers, go-go girls, and the Rock Bear Family (who, incidentally, are great).
Staff - I didn't encounter a single person with anything less than an enthusiastic attitude. This may change as the season progresses, but I'd honestly rank their staff up there with the big guys.
Value - I've already been twice, so I guess the Annual Pass has almost paid for itself. Once everything is up and running, I think the $50 one-day ticket will be justified. The merchandise all seemed pretty reasonably priced.
The sore spot, however, is the food. In our two visits, we ate in three locations (Taste of Paradise Grill, Carnaby Street Cafe, and Great Meals Diner). Two entrees and two drinks ended up running around $23 (WITH the ten percent annual pass discount). And the food quality was decent for a theme park, but not worth that price tag (the exception is the prime rib sandwich - definitely the best thing we ate). A stop at the Whammy Bar revealed a $7.50 bottle of beer and a $8.50 rum and coke. Those prices are insane. There's a lot of great places to eat in Myrtle Beach. Some of them are less than five minutes away from the park. At these prices, I'm much more inclined to exit the park for a meal.
But if the only real complaint I can offer is that the food is overpriced, then I guess the folks behind Hard Rock Park have done a lot right. They've laid a strong foundation for a successful park, but they need to continue building on that foundation. They cannot afford to rest on their laurels for the next year. At this point, there just aren't enough attractions. I don't know how much room they have for expanding out (if any), but I hope they have Phase Two plans in process. My annual pass is good until May 9th, 2009. Give me a reason to renew it, Hard Rock Park.
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