To read the previous installment from Dorney Park & Morey's Piers, click here.
Originally, I intended for this to be a ten part trip report. However, I have found myself with less time than I'd like to work on it in the past couple weeks, so as summer turns to Halloween and my schedule becomes filled with seasonal events, it's time to wrap it up. Therefore, this will be one long section covering everything that we did in Philadelphia, as well as our last park day at Six Flags Great Adventure.
The Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour
Part 9: Philadelphia & Six Flags Great Adventure
If you ask someone what the best places in the United States to visit are, you'd probably wind up receiving an answer of New York, Hawaii, or Las Vegas (or, for family/theme park travelers, Orlando). For those into history, Washington D.C. would also be likely to pop up. Beach fans in the eastern US may be met with Miami as well. Or you could get a national park as an answer, like Yellowstone. Surprisingly, Philadelphia is not a place often mentioned as a top tourist destination, despite its offerings and significance. The city is the sixth largest in the United States, as well as the anchor of the entire Delaware Valley. It was founded by William Penn all the way in 1682, at which time it served as the capital of the Pennsylvania colony. From there, it went on to play an important role in the American Revolution, after which it became the temporary U.S. capital until Washington, D.C. was ready. Today, the city is a center of economics and culture, hosting several globally prominent companies and more permanent art installations than any other city in America. Despite a lack of recognition, it is a city everyone should visit.
For our three days in the city, we opted to purchase a Philadelphia CityPass, which grants access to any 3-5 attractions from a list of options. This, combined with some other free activities, would provide plenty to do over our time in the city. On our first day, we only had the morning and afternoon, so after making our way into downtown via SEPTA's regional rail system, we took a stroll through the city toward the Franklin Institute to redeem our first attraction ticket.
The Franklin Institute, named after Benjamin Franklin, dates back to 1824 as one of the oldest science centers in the United States. While the public areas are more like a typical science museum, the facility also performs a vast amount of research and science education, particularly in the field of biotechnology.
Naturally, our limited time and lack of research credentials limited us to exploring the science museum, a place which was fascinating on its own (or at least I found it fascinating...Douglas and Joshua perhaps a little less so). I'll refrain from going into detail on everything we saw, but some of the highlights included:
-An exhibit on electricity, featuring all sorts of interactive elements. While many of these were similar to labs I've done in physics classes, it is interesting to see how those who may not be quite as knowledgeable interpret the scientific principles behind the phenomena. Most interesting to me was a wall that detected electromagnetic radiation and could be activated by a cell phone, as well as a giant Tesla coil in the center of the room that fired at intervals.
-The Franklin Airshow, which features a large number of Wright Brothers artifacts, as well as other aircraft and various exhibits on aerodynamics and aviation. All three of us got ourselves fired after crashing the Wright glider repeatedly and Joshua designed an airplane that was unable to take flight while Douglas and I tried to balance a pair of balls over a blower.
-The Giant Heart, a Philadelphia staple that is essentially a walkthrough-style attraction of a heart.
-Sports Zone, a section dedicated to the science of sports. We moved through this area quickly as it was overrun with first graders.
-The train factory, describing the mechanics behind the steam engine. Unfortunately, this seemed a tad lacking after the Henry Ford earlier in the trip, but it was a bit more science-y this time.
-Sir Issac's Loft, featuring a large ball machine and a number of illusions created by unusual physical manipulation. I forget exactly what the display was, but this was where I went total physics nerd on Joshua and Douglas before fumbling my demonstration and having it go horribly wrong.
-Space Command, where we spent way too much time amusing ourselves with the game-style exhibits. At the lunar rover competition, I wound up making something plausible, Douglas created a rolling dinosaur that worked only on flat ground, and Joshua's instantly started doing donuts. We also all killed ourselves off at the space tourism booth, where a sleazy travel agent sold bring-your-own-suit vacations that were just too good to be true.
-There was also a very elaborate exhibit about your brain that was a bit overrun with children, but still featured lots of interesting exhibits about how everything was connected.
-Lastly, we saw a show in the planetarium, which featured a 30 minute presentation on stars and constellations. Much of the show was dedicated to the history behind these and what they meant to different cultures throughout time. While I found the presentation interesting, it's probably something I could have done without. Douglas decided to use it to get a brief nap.
Our time at the Franklin Institute complete, we made our way across downtown to the Reading Terminal Market. Here are housed over a hundred local merchants, some selling typical goods and produce while others operate more as fixed location food carts. While initially this was just to be a lunch stop, we spent some time exploring the scene before parting ways to grab lunch. I wound up at a place called Hunger Burger, which serves organic burgers with some unusual toppings. Over two months later, I can't recall exactly what I got, but I remember it being quite tasty. Joshua wound up at a place called By George, which focused on pizza (big surprise there). I don't recall where Douglas wound up, but it was some sort of sandwich shop.
Once we were all satisfied, we took the train back to our hotel to grab Joshua's car and head off to Morey's Piers. That was all the Philadelphia we had time for on day one.
Our second day in Philadelphia was special. Not only was it our full day in the city, it also coincided with Independence Day. While I'm a fan of celebrating the 4th of July with a family barbeque, it's definitely worth passing that up to celebrate in the place where our nation was born. As expected, Philadelphians get into it, complete with a big parade and a fireworks demonstration. Our day was a little more touristy, but still featured some of the festivities.
We started the day with a walking tour of Independence Mall put on by Free Tours by Foot. This is a company that puts on pay-what-you-want tours, and having used them in both Philadelphia and Washington D.C. I've become quite fond of their model. Our tour this time started at the Betsy Ross House, where we arrived early and had a chance to catch the flag raising ceremony, where the original 13 star flag is hoisted by costumed performers. Over the next couple hours, the tour covered numerous sites within a mile or so of the starting point. The exact sequence escapes me now, but I remember seeing the following:
-The Liberty Bell, viewed only from outside
-Independence Hall, once again viewed only from the exterior (the line to enter was prohibitively long on this day in any case)
-The first and second federal banks of the United States
-City Tavern, the oldest tavern in Philadelphia (which has more taverns per capita than any other city in the US)
-Christ Church, where we got to hear a presentation on famous members of the church and learn about the significance it played in colonial life
-Elfreth Alley, the oldest residential street in America
Tour guide cameo.
-Franklin Court, the place where Ben Franklin's house formerly stood
-Carpenter's Hall, where one of the first and most exclusive worker's guilds was organized
-Some other random stuff that I can't quite remember (I think this was the old city hall)
We also had a short break to check out some of the Fourth of July parade, an extravagant display honoring all nations that form the large immigrant population of Philadelphia (though, surprisingly, it wasn't mostly America). The tour concluded at Ben Franklin's Burial Site after nearly three hours of wandering, by which point the heat and humidity was getting to most. We tipped our guide, got a quick lunch recommendation, then set off for a pub randomly chosen by Douglas.
Hoping to escape the heat wave, we decided to use our remaining CityPass tickets on indoor activities. First up, we check out the National Constitution Center, a relatively recent history museum that tackles the difficult topic of the constitution. The main exhibit here begins with a presentation on the early days of America, beginning when colonists first settled here and continuing through the Revolutionary War up until the signing of the United States Constitution. From here, visitors empty out into a large room featuring displays on freedom throughout time, including elements that led to the passage of each amendment to the Constitution. Despite the topic being a bit dry, the material is presented very well, with a number of hands-on displays showcasing the more difficult topics in a very approachable way, yet not simply dumbing down significant events for the masses. Beyond this is a room featuring bronze statues of everyone who was present in Independence Hall at the signing of the Constitution. A couple other temporary exhibits fill the remainder of the Constitution center, such as a display on the Bill of Rights and a showcase on Alexander Hamilton, both of which provided diversions to help fill the time.
Next, we made a short trek down Independence Mall to the Liberty Bell Center. A free exhibit, this attraction had an expected long line, though with a steady flow through the security checkpoint it wasn't as bad as expected. Inside, a brief exhibit about the bell precedes the viewing chamber, where the actual Liberty Bell is mounted for all to see. Like many famous artifacts, it is the sort of thing that is neat to examine in person, but always falls short of the legacy behind it. After taking a couple pictures, we headed back out into the heat and moved on.
Our final destination for the day was the Museum of the American Revolution, another CityPass destination just beyond the Independence Mall. This museum opened just last year, with a single continuous exhibit all about the buildup and events of the Revolutionary War. Throughout the journey, several thousand relics from the time period are on display, and a few famous locales are recreated within. An adjacent theater offers a short presentation on General George Washington, culminating with the reveal of his war tent on display within. It's not the largest museum, but is a great way to spend an hour and a half learning about American history.
By this point, the museums were starting to close, and we were all history-ed out for the day. Joshua opted to take us on a dinner excursion to a random restaurant some distance away, but as it's the Fourth of July we arrive to find the restaurant closed. Frustratingly, Joshua vetoes all the alternatives in the area, so we wind up forgoing dinner and just pop into another pub to grab a beer (Joshua passed on that too).
With darkness descending, it is time for the main evening event. Joining the masses, we make our way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the city's big fireworks display is scheduled. More accurately, we make our way as close as possible to the museum, because tens of thousands are also present for the festivities. Surprisingly, an adequate viewing spot isn't too hard to find, and after relaxing on the lawn for a half hour or so we are treated to a 15 minute fireworks extravaganza.
It's a good show, not one of the best ever created, but certainly better than many. As soon as the show ends, we are swept along with masses of people making their way back to the train station. Despite a bit of worry, we make it in plenty of time to catch a train back to our hotel.
Feeling the need for food, I grab the car keys from Joshua and head out to get a late, late dinner at Burger King, as well as gas for the next day. For July 5th would be our final park day of the trip, and once again we were heading all the way back to New Jersey.
Six Flags Great Adventure
Before this trip, I was a little hesitant to include Six Flags Great Adventure as our only opportunity for visiting would be right around the 4th of July and I feared insane crowds. However, while I've visited the park twice before (most recently in 2014), Douglas and Joshua had never been, so I decided it was worth it to brave the potential crowds and devote our last day to the park. After all, if the tour stated at Cedar Fair's flagship park, it only makes sense to end it at the flagship Six Flags (or at least the East Coast flagship).
Fortunately, we arrived 45 minutes before opening to find a sparsely occupied parking lot. Unfortunately, this meant waiting for 30 minutes before the park started to admit guests through the metal detectors. Judging by the reactions of the crowd, we weren't alone in our frustrations here. Once we got through, Joshua immediately took off for the restroom, as expected. Douglas, hoping to get the jump on Kingda Ka, headed inside through the gold passholders entrance. I waited for Joshua to return, then entered the park with him (I have a gold pass, but Joshua is not a Six Flags passholder since the nearest Six Flags to him is 275 miles away (and the nearest quality Six Flags is over 400)). Ultimately, it didn't matter that we were ten minutes behind Douglas, as we ran into him coming back at us at the entrance to the Golden Kingdom. As expected, Kingda Ka was being an Intamin and wasn't yet ready to open for the day. We promptly made an about face and headed to El Toro.
Or...the lockers near El Toro. While Cedar Point has been getting a ton of flack for it, they were not the first park to enforce a strict no loose article policy. Sometime since my previous visit, SFGAdv has added this requirement to ride El Toro, Joker, and Kingda Ka. Absolutely nothing may be carried on board, and you are required to give yourself a pat-down in front of the guard at the front of the queue. Try to slip anything past, and you'll be sent out to stow it and then return to the end of the line. Truthfully, I mostly support this policy, as guests just cannot be trusted to secure their stuff anymore. I personally witnessed loose article ejections several times on this trip, and the dangers of a flying iPhone are no joke. The one thing I dislike is that free storage is not provided when things generally considered essential (phones, wallets, car keys) must be locked away, but at least Six Flags only charges $1 per use...not bad when several friends share.
So, annoyance out of the way, onward to El Toro. The only Intamin prefab woodie in the United States. The winner of 2017's Golden Ticket for best wood coaster (which was unfortunately stolen by the outstanding but overrated Phoenix this year). My favorite roller coaster of all time, at least up until RMC came along. So, how would it stack up now? Let me put it this way...there are only a few coasters in the world I would legitimately call a perfect ride. Only two coasters on this trip are on that list...Maverick and El Toro. While the ride was running a little sluggish first thing in the morning, El Toro is as wild as the name suggests. A nearly vertical drop leads to several gigantic airtime hills, each offering sustained ejector airtime that RMC just cannot duplicate. Afterward, the ride heads into a series of quick twists and turns, with a few more airtime moments thrown in for good measure. It is just the right length to feel perfectly satisfying without starting to drag on, and has just the right amount of intensity to be infinitely re-rideable. Of course, once we got back to the station, Joshua immediately hopped out of the train. He would later describe the ride as a "middle tier wood coaster" and "less thrilling than a B&M hyper." Meanwhile, Douglas and I took advantage of the lack of crowds and SFGAdv's awesome operators to take several more spins without leaving our seats. Douglas, I believe, ranked it third on the trip after Voyage and Steel Vengeance. I, on the other hand, stand by what I said before...El Toro is a perfect coaster, and probably my favorite ride of the whole trip.
Realizing that we should take advantage of light crowds on more than one ride, we decided to commence our credit tour with Bizarro, the original B&M floorless coaster. Despite having a clone of this ride at my local Six Flags, this installation is somehow better. It's above grass, has some modest theming, runs smoother, and actually operates with all three trains. It's not the best coaster ever, but is a very solid ride that would be top tier in most coaster parks.
From here, we ventured over to the Runaway Mine Train, SFGAdv's original roller coaster. Drawn in by the Raiders March being played in the station, we were dismayed to find a below average mine train. Don't get me wrong, it was still above par for this trip, but even Joshua the mine train enthusiast didn't particularly care for this ride. It's fine for what it is, but definitely not the finest example of Arrow's engineering prowess.
For reasons I cannot remember right now, Joshua and I figured this was a good time to do the Saw Mill Log Flume. It's a nice long ride with three drops and a good setting, but isn't otherwise particularly remarkable. Douglas attempted to man the water cannons and drench us at the end, but all his loose change was still secure in the locker. Looks like that makes two foiled attempts at drenching me on this trip.
By now, Douglas was starting to get antsy...Kingda Ka had yet to even run a test cycle, as far as we could tell, and he clearly wanted to tackle the tallest coaster in the world. Meanwhile, I was getting a little antsy as well...there was only one credit for me to get here, and I wanted to grab it. Those of you familiar with Six Flags Magic Mountain likely know of a ride called Green Lantern: First Flight. For those that don't, it is a ride so diabolically evil that it was shut down last year by the state of California due to the ride having too high of injury potential (it's currently undergoing modification and will reopen next year). Well, SFGAdv has the spiritual successor to Green Lantern...Joker, an S&S free spin that has been cloned throughout the chain. As we approached the ride, I feared the worst. Would this ride prove as painful as its predecessor back home? Would it be even the least bit enjoyable? Well...
We all got off laughing. As it turned out, not only is this a much more comfortable experience, but the face-to-face seating configuration leads to some hilariously unexpected moments. For example, at one point Douglas and I were watching Joshua face to face. Suddenly, the car hits a kicker fin, and Joshua is flipped clear out of view almost instantly (naturally, we received that same flip a fraction of a second later). It is a very short ride and not going to rank near the top of any enthusiast's list, but is a blast to experience with a group of friends and way more fun than you'd expect.
With about thirty minutes remaining on our locker rental, we headed to the front of the park to take on Green Lantern. Unlike the monstrosity at SFMM, this installation is a decent B&M stand-up coaster with some similarities to Mantis but enough differences to remain unique. Unfortunately, due to poor operations inherent with this type of ride, we barely managed to ride and make it back to the locker in time. Fortunately, we had no need to return to this area as Superman was taking a day off.
The eastern side of the park complete, we took the Skyway over to the west side of the park.
Here, our first stop was Skull Mountain, an indoor coaster that feels like Six Flags' attempt at Space Mountain. It's little more than a junior coaster, and sadly none of the special effects work anymore. However, it's worth checking out for those who need a break from intensity or just want to see if Six Flags can do theming (spoiler...they can, but not here).
Next up, Nitro. One of the earlier B&M hypers, Nitro still stands as one of the better examples of its type. A nice long ride packed with floater airtime and blasting a rockin' Mortal Kombat remix in the station, this is another example of a ride I could do all day. Three train ops with minimal stacking (take that Kings Island) meant that this was never more than a station wait all day, and had I been with a different crowd I likely would have gotten more than two rides in here.
But everyone was starting to get hungry and we wanted to complete the coaster tour before lunch. Fortunately, only two remained. Choosing the one closest to Joshua's latest restroom stop, we jumped in the queue for the Dark Knight. Themed to the 2008 movie, this indoor wild mouse has not aged well. An outdated and overly long preshow featuring Harvey Dent give a press conference sets the stage for a nonsensical ride in the dark nearly devoid of any interesting effects. Yes, a couple of the static Batman statues still light up, but that's about all that's still working. Not only was this ride a supreme disappointment, it became a joke among our group. It's what happens when Six Flags tries too hard.
One coaster to go, and that's the classic Batman The Ride. Not a fan of intensity, Joshua opted to sit this one out while Douglas and I ventured through the sweatbox that is Gotham City's sewer system and eventually boarded the ride. I've been on a half dozen of these things and they're all more or less the same...not bad, just outdated and inferior to what B&M was able to crank out once they perfected the inverted design.
Coasters complete, it was time to eat. As is the rule at Six Flags, stick to the outside franchises for best results. Joshua and Douglas opted for Panda Express, while I instead grabbed a burger at Johnny Rockets (not the biggest fan of Asian). As expected, it was simply "fine."
So, we've completed all the coasters. At a typical Six Flags, that would be a sign that your day is complete. Here, however, there's still much to explore. I was looking forward to sampling the new Cyborg Cyber Spin, an insane flat ride rotating riders on several axes at once. Unfortunately, it was down for the count.
Therefore, we settled on Justice League: Battle for Metropolis. I've ridden this attraction plenty of times at Six Flags Magic Mountain and consider it one of the best dark rides not at a Disney or Universal park. The version at SFGAdv is slightly different, but in some was superior. Here, there are no preshow rooms, with the important information playing on a loop as guests wait inside an indoor queue. The presentation does a better job of setting up the storyline, and the scenes on the ride seem to flow together a bit better here. Unfortunately, this version has fewer animatronics than the SFMM installation and is slightly shorter, but still offers a quality experience just a small step down from the top tier rides at the destination parks.
In the mood for another dark ride, we headed over to Houdini's Great Escape. A rare Vekoma madhouse attraction, this is less ride and more show. After an elaborate presentation in which Harry Houdini is supposedly brought back from the beyond, guests are subjected to his greatest illusion yet. Locked in their seats by magic keys, the room around riders slowly begins to rotate until guests are completely inverted. Subtle shifts in the angle of the seating platform alter perception just enough to make the illusion work, with predictably disorienting results. It is a spectacular ride, again suitable for a Disney park (Doctor Strange?), but unfortunately the attraction is marred by Six Flag operations, here largely requiring guests to clamber over the entire row of seats to store loose articles beyond the exit door. Still a very unique ride and well worth checking out.
After another Kingda Ka check (still not operating), we made our way back to Frontier Adventures for another of Great Adventure's unique attractions. Dubbed the Safari Off-Road Adventure, this is a conversion of the park's former drive thru safari into something reminiscent of Disney's Kilimanjaro Safaris.
Here, however, it is an hour-long tour with enclosures displaying animals from around the world in somewhat natural habitats.
You won't find any of Disney's manufactured nature here, which to me makes this attraction a tad better.
Either way, it's clearly a win for the park, as this was our longest wait of the day (~45 minutes).
As we returned, Kingda Ka was finally open, so we headed directly for the attraction. Naturally, as soon as our stuff was secure in a locker, the ride went down. We cut our losses by hiking all the way out to Zumanjaro: Drop of Doom...the world's tallest drop tower. While the drop is still fun, this ride is surprisingly tame compared to most other drop towers, and I find the slightly shorter Lex Luthor more intimidating due to how much sway there is in the tower.
By the time we exited, Kingda Ka was back in operation, so we queued up for a ride. Knowing that this ride can be quite violent toward the back of the train, I insisted that we ride front row. The improvement was overwhelming, so much so that I'd consider a front row ride on this my favorite accelerator coaster (well, except perhaps a front row ride on Top Thrill Dragster). Much like Top Thrill Dragster, there isn't much to the ride other than the launch and top hat, but it's still a rush to ride the world's tallest roller coaster.
The remainder of the day consisted mostly of re-rides, using Joshua as a locker, and camping out at the parachute tower while it was down for wind delay (Joshua did finally get to ride). As sunset approached, we decided we'd had our fill of coasters and opted to depart a bit early. After a brief dinner stop at Chick-Fil-A and a 90 minute drive, we were back at the hotel for the night.
Many look down on the Six Flags parks and feel they are the bottom of the barrel among regional theme parks. I politely disagree, especially in the case of parks like Great Adventure. No, it isn't a park that excels in all areas, but they do have a very good coaster collection, a reasonably good selection of non-coaster attractions, some passable theming in parts of the park, above average operations, and dirt cheap admission. Yes, some of the Six Flags annoyances still creep through, and the park certainly could be better than it is, but having visited over 80 parks there are certainly a lot worse places. Truthfully, our day at SFGAdv was probably my fourth favorite park day of the trip (after Knoebels, Cedar Point, and Kings Island), and it is a park I would gladly return to whenever I'm in the area. It is the park SFMM (and every other Six Flags park) should be, and is a fine example of a regional theme park.
Six Flags Great Adventure Coaster Ranking:
1. El Toro x5
2. Kingda Ka
3. Nitro x2
5. Batman The Ride
6. Joker x3
7. Green Lantern
8. Skull Mountain
9. Dark Knight
10. Rolling Thunder
The last day of our trip was fairly uneventful. Joshua departed after breakfast to drive back home to Raleigh, while Douglas and I headed back into Philadelphia to use our remaining CityPass ticket on the One Liberty Observation Deck.
After spending 30-45 minutes here, we headed back to the Reading Terminal Market to grab some cheesesteaks for lunch (which, surprisingly, neither of us had tried yet).
On the surface, a cheesesteak sounds weird, as it is essentially cheese melted on diced steak and slapped on a sandwich roll. However, the combination is surprisingly good, particularly when the cheese is properly applied and a couple bonus toppings are added. Once finished with lunch, we made our way back to the hotel to retrieve luggage, then headed over to the airport to catch the flight back to Los Angeles.
The Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour was not the first theme park road trip I've taken, nor was it the most elaborate excursion I've participated in. However, to date it is the biggest undertaking that I have planned and organized myself. While I did solicit input from those who chose to travel with me, about 90% of the work fell to me. 11 theme parks, 97 coasters, and some additional sightseeing activities over 13 days is no small feat, and while I wouldn't call the trip flawless, it definitely went better than expected. I had an amazing time, and as far as I can tell my traveling companions did as well.
So, what is to come? Well, if you've read this report and are interested in joining me on a theme park adventure, I've got some good news for you. For 2019, I am planning not one but two theme park tours...one to Texas, and one to Middle America (aka Missouri and the surrounding states). Planning for these tours will begin next month, so if you think you might want in be sure to watch my social media pages (Facebook and Twitter links in my profile) or shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information. For now, it's time to bid farewell to summer 2018 and look forward to the year ahead.
If you haven't finished Douglas's report yet, pick it back up here and be sure to read onward to the end.
Thank you for reading along on this lengthy report. I hope you found it both enjoyable and informative. If you've got any questions or comments about the tour or report, please leave them below.Tweet
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