The Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour - Part 9

Edited: September 16, 2018, 5:02 PM

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

Photo misplaced...sorry!

-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).


Replies (4)

September 17, 2018, 10:14 AM

Philly is definitely an underrated city. However, for us living in the DC Area (and with easy access to the free Smithsonian Museums), Philly is more of a pit stop on the way to New York and other interests in the Northeast. For us it's too far for a day trip, but not far enough to warrant a full vacation.

I don't mind SFGAdv, but what annoys me more than anything is their horrible operations. If they ran the park like Cedar Point or Kings Island, SFGAdv would be one of the top 2 or 3 regional theme parks in the US (same with the other "big" SF parks like SFMM SFGA, and SFoT). Instead, they don't provide any ride information on their website/app, take forever to load and dispatch rides, and inexplicably allow top rides to deteriorate to the point where you never know when they'll run on any given day. The park has one of the most diverse coaster collections on the planet, but it's rare that you can show up and be able to do just top the 8 in a single day (whether due to lines or maintenance issues).

Six Flags knows people will show up because the value is still there because of their cut rate admission prices, but I always wonder if they invested just a bit more on customer service and quality that they could significantly increase their profits. I also always find it interesting to see the drop in morale and customer service from the beginning of the summer to the end as the enthusiasm of a new season and joyful seasonal/temporary employees is sucked out by a company that doesn't seem like it could motivate The Situation to show his abs on a rainy day.

September 17, 2018, 9:24 PM

Interesting to hear that, Russell. I know my sample size is small, but all three times I've visited SFGAdv I've actually found their operations to generally be above average and better than any other park in the Six Flags chain. On this visit, Superman was down all day and Kingda Ka was having issues (though Steel Vengeance still wins the award for most problematic coaster of the trip), but other than that everything ran all day and most of the time stacking was minimal (Green Lantern being the primary exception there). While not Cedar Point level, I'd actually say SFGAdv was doing better this time than KI, which was often double-stacking their three train coasters (never saw a double-stack at SFGAdv). Most direct comparison...Diamondback double-stacked approximately 80% of the time, but Nitro almost always dispatched before the train in front reached the MCBR. Lack of crowds certainly helped as well...I was expecting to need a Flash Pass, but other than Kingda Ka and the Safari Off-Road Adventure I don't think we waited more than 30 minutes for anything (and many rides were just station waits). Can't disagree on the app, however...I tried it at two different Six Flags parks before uninstalling it as the information is either not provided or is inaccurate.

Based on my visit to DC last spring, I'd definitely say the museums and other historical attractions there probably beat out anywhere else, so if you live there it's definitely challenging to justify a trip somewhere else with similar content. As cities go, however, I think Philly may be my favorite big city for general exploration (at least among those on the East Coast). I personally wasn't that impressed with New York when I visited several years ago, but perhaps that's just not my sort of place (Boston on the same trip, however, was quite nice).

September 18, 2018, 8:58 AM

SFGAdv is definitely better at operating their coasters than some other Six Flags parks (I'm looking at you SFMM), but for the most part, they don't get anywhere near peak capacity when crowds demand it (SFGA and SFoT have been the best in my experience with SFFT a close 3rd). It sounds like you were fortunate to visit on a slower day, but if the park is any more than half full, the operations slow to a crawl. It also sounds like you missed one of the most poorly operated coasters in the park, Superman: Ultimate Flight. B&M fliers should be almost as efficient to load as a sit down coaster, but for whatever reason, SFGAdv finds a way to make it take 3+ minutes between cycles, which is probably why the coaster runs with just a single train more often than not.

The biggest issue I have with the park is waiting in line for more than 15 minutes as a single rider when they have a specific single rider line that is either not being properly managed or is completely closed (Green Lantern and Joker are the biggest offenders). Also the way they manage their Flash Pass is incredibly inefficient with merge points typically at the station that requires one of the ride ops to manage while they are also supposed to be loading and checking restraints. That means either Flash Pass guests are waiting at the merge point to get into the station, or a ride op that should be checking restraints is validating Flash Passes, holding up the loading process.

While it's not an operations issue, SFGAdv has some of the most poorly designed coaster stations in the country. I know El Toro was stuck with the station from Viper, but what brainiac thought it would be smart to have guests enter at the front of a coaster station with a stairway too narrow to allow for guests to walk past those waiting to ride in the front row? Kingda Ka has an incredibly elaborate queue, but they refuse to use it correctly (partly because the capacity was significantly decreased due to Zumanjaro). The Batman queue is similarly of poor design with half of the line stuck in corrugated metal sewer pipes that get suffocating on even lukewarm days with an air conditioning system that is about as effective as placing ice cube in front of a blow torch. Nitro's queue is not so bad getting on, but consider what it's like for guests in wheelchairs trying to roll up the narrow exit ramp as 36 guests surge down the ramp every 90 seconds (Superman's disabled entrance is similar, but at least the ramp is a bit wider).

That's always been my biggest complaint with everything Six Flags. They have the bones of great theme parks, but they refuse the spend the extra 5-10% to make the guest experience 100% better. Little things like station design, restroom layouts, food prep efficiency would take some investment to correct. However, the cost for those improvements would be minimal compared to the cost of a new attraction, but would increase guest satisfaction dramatically. If you're going to spend $20 million on a B&M, why not spend an extra $1 million to properly grade the site so guests don't have to trudge up and down ramps and stairs? Or at the very least, if you're going to make guests walk up and down stairs/ramps, make them wide enough to accommodate the anticipated traffic (have separated lanes for front/back rows on the entrance side, and have space for disabled guests to get up ramps and to wait off the platform to ride).

September 19, 2018, 11:27 AM

I enjoy reading other people's impressions of my city. And despite its possibly not being recognized as a top destination, there are invariably swarms of tourists in the historical district, a few blocks from where I work.

Also interesting to read people's impressions of my home park, especially as I've reviewed a number of these attractions for TPI. (SFGadv is my home park b/c it's an hour drive door to door whereas the two Pennsylvania parks I visit - Hershey and Dorney - are a 2 hr. and 1.75 hr. drive.) I regard El Toro as possibly the best coaster in the world. And BTW, it's only phones and keys that are banned on it. Steel Vengeance is somewhat more thrilling but El Toro is more easily re-rideable; you certainly got that right, AJ, about its being re-rideable. One day I got there early enough to manage 10 consecutive rides and was none the worse for it whereas after 5 rides on Steel Vengeance I had a large, painful bruise on my right arm and a banged up elbow on my left. (Altogether I would estimate that I've ridden El Toro over 600 times.) The ejector air from row 16 on El Toro is off the charts.

I agree with your assessment of some of the other rides. However, I don't find Zumanjaro tame. Haven't ridden Lex Luthor so can't comment on that but the height of Zumanjaro alone is enough to make it scarifying, especially for those who like myself are acrophobic. Falcon's Fury is scarifying due to the fact that riders are facing downward but its height is unremarkable, whereas I am always struck by the height of Zumanjaro as I watch the massive El Toro fade into the distance.

Agreed that they do a good job of loading Nitro and it's a great ride for floater airtime. (I'm confident that the ride ops on El Toro could do as well were it not for the fact that they have to deal with many who end up doing the walk of shame after multiple attempts on the part of the ops to secure the restraints have failed.) Batman is my favorite ride in the park after El Toro and Nitro and Superman my least favorite, the slow loading being only one of the reasons. This ride is vastly inferior to Galactica at Alton Towers, which has none of these loading issues and offers a much more interesting ride experience.

Justice League is one of the few flat rides I enjoy. I find it truly outstanding. As to Houdini, it's inventive alright but made me physically ill. Definitely not recommended for those prone to motion sickness. I don't have a problem with Cyborg - which I reviewed for TPI - b/c it doesn't have the same type of motion. The rides that give me the most trouble are those that move in a circular manner, such as Revolution at Dorney. As to Dark Knight, I still enjoy it - I'm about the only person I know who does - although that pre-ride presentation gets old awfully fast. And as to Kingda Ka, I've pretty much given up on it since they started requiring that ALL personal items be placed in a locker. I'm willing to put my phone and keys in a locker to ride El Toro but riding Ka isn't important enough for me to put up with the hassle of taking everything out of my pockets.

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