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Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: Holiday World

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Published: July 18, 2009 at 8:46 PM

SANTA CLAUS, Ind. - Wooden roller coasters belong in, well, the woods. So it seems appropriate that one should have to drive deep into the Indiana wilderness to find what might be the best collection of wooden roller coasters in the country.

Holiday World entrance

Holiday World might be the most isolated theme park in the nation. Forget about walking across the street to a fast food joint for lunch outside the park. The nearest food to this park is acres of corn, not just on the cob, but on the stalk and in the husk, as well.

Located in the tiny town of Santa Claus, Indiana ("Look," said Laurie as we approached the park, "it's Saint Nicholas Catholic Church!"), Holiday World lies a two-lane country drive south of Interstate 64, a bit more than an hour west of Louisville.

While the park itself might isolated, you can't say the same of its visitors. I've never overheard more talk of visits to various top parks around the country as I heard waiting in the queues at Holiday World. Makes sense, too. There are almost no locals here to pad the crowds. Nor does rural Southern Indiana attract the "go-along" tourist crowd the way the Orlando parks do. No, those who take the time to make the drive to Holiday World are seasoned, dedicated theme and amusement park fans.

Based on a suggestion from TPI reader James Rao, Natalie and I started by making a sharp left to begin our day at The Raven, a 1995 CCI production. We arrived a half hour after the park opened, and The Raven was already a half-hour wait, with two trains running. (Like I said, Holiday World's visitors are pros....)

The Raven

The Raven drops you into a series of swift turns in the woods, with one skimming riders along the surface of adjacent Lake Rudolph. Fast and powerful, The Raven finished with a one-two punch of a tight turn, followed by a stiff block brake just outside the station. Natalie jumped off the coaster, elated, her roller coaster appetite ready for even more.

We made the short walk over to our next stop in Holiday World's coaster trio, The Legend.

The Legend

The Legend offers everything The Raven did, in about triplicate. As I tweeted after the ride, "Sorry, Raven fans, but The Legend is in a different league." Steep and swift, The Legend mixes tunnels and turns in a deep woods setting that immediately prompted me to wonder where it might rank among the top wooden coasters I'd ridden.

That lasted until I rode The Voyage.

The Voyage

Holiday World's tallest and fastest coaster is clearly its best, and well deserving of its claim as the best wooden roller coaster on the planet. I haven't ridden all of them yet (most notably, I've yet to visit El Toro in New Jersey), but The Voyage is my new favorite among those I have.

Saturdays in July are the most crowded days of the year at Holiday World and the 70-minute wait in a back-and-forth underground queue left me feeling as hopeless as a pilgrim halfway across the Atlantic. (The nautical nets and ropes hanging from the ceiling added to the feeling of waiting in a ship's hold.)

But we did, at last, emerge on deck into the loading station. As we rode the 163-foot lift, a young lady in the seat behind me told her boyfriend, "Um, I'm afraid of heights." He laughed, and I turned around, with a smile, to tell her as we crested, "You're on the wrong ride!"

The Voyage's initial drop propels you into the steepest secondary hill I can recall, setting up a delightful series of dips and drops, each one pushing me out of my seat for a generous helping of airtime.

The turnaround on wooden coasters is usually the "jump the shark" moment, after which the thrills diminish as the train's potential energy dissipates and the train scuffs off momentum on its way back to the station. Not on The Voyage. Someone at The Gravity Group figured out that you can carry extra speed and energy if you don't let a little thing like the ground stop your coaster's momentum. The Voyage's back half delivers a thrilling triple-dip of subterranean tunnels that gives riders a satisfying taste of a wooden coaster in the dark.

Yeah, this ride earns a 10.

The rest of my half day at the park?

Natalie demurred on joining me for the ride on The Voyage, but eagerly volunteered to ride with her mother on Pilgrim's Plunge. Well, they were eager until the wall of water greeted them at the bottom of the 131-foot drop.

Splashdown

Laurie said that the most thrilling part of the ride actually was the lift ride up to the drop. Sitting in the back row, there's no visible support for the boat on its trip of the 90-degree vertical lift, creating a disturbing feeling that you are floating into the sky.

Pilgrims Plunge

Brian and I also enjoyed Gobbler Getaway, a Sally shoot-'em-up dark ride. At first, I envisioned PETA pickets around a ride where the goal was to shoot as many turkeys as possible for Thanksgiving dinner. But grandma doesn't want you to shoot the turkeys, just to use your "calls" to draw 'em out of hiding.

The action's the same though. Aim the gun turkey call at the little targets and watch the cut-out turkeys pop up, out and spin with each bulls-eye. At the end, there's nothing for the turkeys to fear - the family celebrates Thanksgiving with a big... pizza.

Gobbler Getaway

I racked up a 570 on the targets, with Brian bagging a 370. Laurie, however, scored a big turkey egg - zero. There's a big advantage here riding in the front seat, as you'll have the clearest shot at the small targets. (It also helps to be a half-way decent shot. If Laurie ever gets really mad at me after one of these trip reports, I don't have to worry about her coming after me with a gun. She'd just miss.)

Brian skipped the coasters and enjoyed some time on the park's Holidog's Fun Town playground.

Holidog Playground

While I rode The Voyage, Laurie convinced Natalie to go for a spin (literally) on Revolution. (Or, as Natalie called this centrifuge ride, "The Vomitron.") We skipped the Splashin' Safari water park, as well as the rest of the collection of low-capacity, over-crowded (for today, at least) spinners and carnival-style rides sprinkled throughout the park.

We enjoyed the Thanksgiving-style lunch at the Plymouth Rock Cafe, splitting an adult turkey and an adult fried chicken meal among the four of us.

Holiday World turkey lunch

Holiday World fried chicken lunch

Not as tasty as grandma's, the meat and fixin's nevertheless stood up well as theme park fare. And the free soft drinks, available throughout the park, helped keep the cost reasonable, as well.

In addition to the free Pepsi products, Holiday World offers free parking (!) and free sunscreen. I figured the sunscreen would be lotion or spray, and was surprised to find that it is actually a massive screen of clouds that keeps the park cool and comfortable throughout the day.

What? That wasn't a special effect? Okay, well, it still was nice to spend a day at a park, and not feel burned.

Stay tuned this week for our next visit on the Theme Park Insider summer roadtrip, to Kings Island, north of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Readers' Opinions

From 68.53.3.217 on July 18, 2009 at 8:16 PM
very good review. the voyage was much better when it was new.. its gotten looser. el toro doesnt have the same elements as the voyage but it has more bang. another that comes close is ghost rider out at knotts. keep up the good work ,, p
From James Rao on July 18, 2009 at 9:54 PM
The Raven.
The Legend.
The Voyage.

The Holy Trinity Of Wooden Coasters. Each in its own right would be a headliner at any other park. But to have them all in one small town park in Indiana? Wow!

I have been anxiously awaiting your review of the Voyage, Robert, and I am relieved you loved it as much as I did. Honestly, that beast ruined other, lesser wooden coasters for me, like the Timber Wolf, The Boss, and Screamin' Eagle. It is just difficult to accept anything less after you have ridden the best!

By the way, when you drove through Kansas, did you end up stopping at Local Burger? If so, how did you like it?

I have a request for your next stop on the road trip, King's Island: in addition to riding Diamondback, please make sure you take a ride on Flight of Fear and let me know how you think it compares to Rock 'n' Roller coaster at DHS.

Drive safely!

From matthew w on July 18, 2009 at 9:14 PM
I will be going to Holiday World this summer for a first ride on the Voyage, however I can say now, next to The Beast, El Toro is gods gift to wooden rollercoaster fans. Its the all time king. Unlike most out and back coasters, speed is the name of the game, the seemingly out of control speed never lets up; it almost seems to go faster as it goes on (the final turns really seem its going out of control) Its oddly smooth for a woodie, yet earns its perfect name, they pack you in tight as you would fall out on those hills. Ive seen overweight riders be asked to leave if they cant be strapped in correctly.
From Beth Olliges on July 18, 2009 at 9:20 PM
Sorry, but I have to disagree about the Voyage. I rode it once, during its premiere season, and that was enough (if not too much). It bashed me around so much I got an instant headache. And it wasn't just me; the others in my party had similar reactions. I somewhat like the Legend, but for a repeat-riding coaster at Holiday World, it's the Raven all the way for me! (Waving "hello" as you pass through Louisville on your way from Holiday World to Kings Island!)
From Beth Olliges on July 18, 2009 at 9:24 PM
P.S. Oh, and if you skipped Splashin' Safari, you missed half the fun! I'm not a big water park person (usually preferring to spend my time on rides), but Splashin' Safari is so much fun I can't resist it!
From rick stevens on July 18, 2009 at 11:53 PM
My wife grew up in Indiana (Fort Wayne), hopefully I can talk her into a trip to Holiday World. She is not a roller coaster fan, but I am a sucker for the wooden ones. Thanks for the great report, hope the "are we there yet" has not started.
From 98.226.46.40 on July 19, 2009 at 6:07 AM
While at King's Island be sure to eat at Rivertown Junction Dinning Hall. A tad pricey, but the best theme park food i have ever eaten besides the Beer Garden buffet in EPCOT!
From Robert Niles on July 19, 2009 at 7:10 AM
We had to be back on the road by three, so we didn't have time to do Splashin' Safari, plus, as many long-time readers of the site might know, I'm just not a water park person.

Regardless, yesterday's weather was quite uncharacteristic for the Midwest in mid-July, overcast and chilly. We saw quite a few folks at Pilgrims Plunge, who'd come over from the water park and were shivering the whole time. So I think we made the right choice for yesterday, given our time constraint, to skip the water park.

James, I'll be writing about Local Burger, as well as a few other locally-owned establishments, in a post later this week.

From Rod Whitenack on July 19, 2009 at 8:44 AM
As a Louisville resident, I've been to both Holiday World and King's Island many times over the years. The Beast at King's Island has held a special place in my heart since I was a teenager and I've always been a fan of the classic wooden coaster. I must say with all honesty that the Voyage is truely the successor of the Beast; the only woodie I've ever ridden that measures up. Son of the Beast, with or without the infamous loop, was always inferior. It was bigger and rougher, but not any fun. I've always thought the perfect roller coaster was like a good film and should have a three act structure; a suspenseful beginning, a wild midsection and a great finale. One of the biggest failures to deliver that structure is Adventure Express at King's Island which continuely disappionts riders with the worst tease of a third act in coaster history. Robert, I'm taking my niece and her friend to King's Island this Thursday and look forward to your report on Diamondback.
From 96.27.134.173 on July 19, 2009 at 8:52 AM
I was there yesterday, and I am fairly certain that those lines that you described were only as long as they were because it was extremely cold, so most people avoided the water park.

Also, congrats on making it on the gobbler getaway. It was shut down off and on for most of the day.

From John Jackson on July 19, 2009 at 11:08 AM
If you ever ride El Toro at SFGAdv, you will definitely love it. But, having ridden both of them, in riding The Voyage, you've experienced the best wooden coaster America has to offer. I rode El Toro a few years ago, and this year rode both of them. The Voyage is by far my favorite. El Toro has great air, but even it can not compare with the amount of air from Voyage, especially from the back seat. I'm not sure why Voyage even has a back seat because we were never really in it the entire ride.
From Robert Niles on July 19, 2009 at 11:46 AM
Strong point about the weather - that's a huge issue for combo theme/water parks. I suspected that the 70-minute wait on Voyage wouldn't have been as long had Gobbler been open (I hopped on later, just before we left) and if folks had been more willing to ride Plunge. Pilgrims Plunge was a five-minute wait, if that.

The weather issue is especially felt at HW, since this is a park people plan to go to, as opposed to visit on a whim 'cause it is so close. A cool day really pushes people from the water park into the theme park. At other parks with large local fan bases, a cool day would simply keep people at home.

BTW, John, *great* line about the back seat. I was in the next-to-last, and felt like I was floating for much of the ride.

From Robert Niles on July 19, 2009 at 12:23 PM
By the way, I've just updated the dining listings for Kings Island, so if folks want to click over to offer some ratings and reviews, that'll help my planning for Tuesday's visit.
From Will Chilcote on July 19, 2009 at 4:42 PM
It sounds like a good time. I'm sorry to hear that you skipped the water park. I have heard that it is one of the best in the US.

BTW, check out LaRosa Pizza at Kings Island. Good Stuff.

From Rhys Evans on July 19, 2009 at 5:36 PM
I think that The Legend still squeaks by The Voyage (which, we must reveal, has a metal structure and wooden tracks, so I call it a hybrid, not a true wooden coaster, as wonderful as it is). And the Raven is the third best coaster in this park, but it's just about the third best coaster in this country at the same time! Yeah, who would think that you'd find some of the best coasters in the world all in a remote place like Holiday World? My only "problem" with Holiday World (and it's MY problem, not theirs...) is that, like Robert, both times I've visited, I had a time crunch, so I've never been able to ride these three amazing coasters after dark.
For the record, I've also been on the awesome El Toro, but it nonetheless earns a ranking lower on my list. About the only other coasters that come close to any of these is Thunder Road (more of a twister than Holiday World's mostly out-and-backs) and Lightning Racer.
From 96.27.134.173 on July 19, 2009 at 5:49 PM
Oh, Rhys, you are missing out so much. Last year I rode the Voyage at about 9:00, for my first time riding it in the dark, and it was absolutely the most incredible ride of my life.

It is ALMOST as good in the rain. (I'm recommending sunglasses for that one.)

From Anthony Murphy on July 19, 2009 at 6:54 PM
Looks fun!

Too bad your couldn't get to go to SFGA and come and see your alma mater!

From Robert Niles on July 19, 2009 at 7:38 PM
FWIW, we're talking about a "northern" roadtrip and a European roadtrip for the next couple of summers, so for the northern one, we'd likely be hitting SFGrAm, Cedar Point and possibly Canada's Wonderland.

I'm nowhere near a European itinerary, but the parks I'd most want to see at this point would include Disneyland Paris, Efteling, Gardaland and Port Aventura.

From Don Neal on July 20, 2009 at 5:23 AM
Good review Robert. Those three coasters are great! The Voyage replaced Beast as my favorite woodie and I grew up on the Beast. The waterpark is one of the best in the US as well. Crazy all that fun and excitement in the middle of nowhere. :)
From Joshua Counsil on July 20, 2009 at 11:15 AM
Great report.

Definitely would love to ride those coasters, but I just cannot justify driving out of the way and paying for admission for only three great coasters and some midway rides. Pilgrims Plunge would be fun, but what is really worthwhile beyond that?

I'd love to hear your review of my home park, Canada's Wonderland. Please do consider it for your northern trip.

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