Table of Contents:
Part 1: The Park Experience…Visiting During COVID
Part 2: Three Remote Small Parks…Wonderland, Frontier City & Magic Springs (you’re reading this part now)
Part 3: Beyond the Parks…Other Safe Outdoor Activities for Travelers
Part 4: New For 2020…A Review of Mystic River Falls & Texas Stingray
Within the theme park enthusiast community, there are a few different types of enthusiasts. Some are Disney fans, who most enjoy one or more trips to a Disney resort each year and often consider other parks inferior. Some stick to destination parks, throwing in visits to Universal, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens when convenient. Some are more thrill oriented, making Six Flags and Cedar Fair properties their parks of choice. Some only go for corporate parks, while others avoid them and focus on the independent players of the industry. Some are pure coaster junkies, seeking out every last credit even if it means driving hours out of the way to ride a kiddie coaster.
As for me, I visit them all, and have found that each type of park excels in different ways. Destination parks often have the most immersive theming and the most cutting-edge attractions, but they also tend to cost the most and can be a bit lackluster if you’re not a fan of the IP in use. Thrill parks are great for the adrenaline rush and offer extreme intensity, but they tend to lack in balance and family offerings. Independent parks often have older, less spectacular rides and attractions, but make up for it through charm and uniqueness. If you’re doing a road trip, it is well worth including a mix of all these types of parks to avoid fatigue.
For my trips, I start by picking the major destinations to be included. For this one, those were SeaWorld San Antonio, Silver Dollar City, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, and Six Flags Over Texas, as well as the city of Houston. I then look for any park along the route that can be added with no more than a 100-mile detour, which often results in the addition of several small parks. Unlike many of my trips, this one had no major new parks as I’d visited the four big ones last year (you can read about my experiences by clicking the park name above). However, I still stopped by several smaller parks of various types and sizes, most out of the way from any other trip, none worth going out of the way for on their own, but all worth a stop if you’re passing by.
Coastering in the Time of COVID
Part 2: Three Remote Small Parks…Wonderland, Frontier City & Magic Springs
Amarillo, Texas…the largest city in the panhandle of the state. This metropolis in the middle of farm territory is located along historic U.S. Route 66, and is the only major city for hundreds of miles either direction along I-40. It is known for several things, including helium, the V-22 Osprey, meat packing, Pantex. They’ve also got a couple well known roadside oddities in the form of Cadillac Ranch (I’ll be covering that in next week’s write-up) and the Big Texan Steak Ranch (which we didn’t visit on this trip). However, Amarillo isn’t somewhere that jumps out as a place someone would travel to if they weren’t passing through, nor is it a place you’d expect a theme park enthusiast to put on their itinerary.
However, due to the circumstances of this particular trip, I happened to be passing straight through Amarillo on the drive from Southern California to Branson, Missouri. And, as luck would have it, this place does indeed host a small amusement park. Named Wonderland Amusement Park (and not to be confused with Canada’s Wonderland), this small family owned park has been entertaining locals since 1951.
Originally named Kiddieland, it was primarily a place for kids until the late 60s, when a major expansion diversified their offerings to appeal to guests of all ages. Today, the park operates a decent collection of attractions for somewhere its size, with thirty attractions including four roller coasters and five water rides.
Wonderland’s best attraction, and the most thrilling roller coaster in this part of the country, is a ride known as the Texas Tornado. The first coaster project from a company named Hopkins (more well-known for their water rides), this double loop coaster is janky as heck. The ride was reputedly designed on the back of a napkin at a cocktail party, and evidence of original design flaws that needed correction can be spotted throughout the layout.
The train is a PTC 2-bench design, identical to those found on many wood coasters but retrofitted with alternate wheel bogies designed for steel track. The ride cannot be dispatched with less than ten riders (it seats twenty), as there is a risk of stalling on an elevated section of track. It sounds like the ride should be a disaster, but to my total surprise, it was actually reasonably enjoyable. The ride is fairly smooth, reasonably intense, and has just enough of that oddness to be memorable without having enough to significantly detract from the ride.
Wonderland’s other coasters are all family rides and were all purchased second-hand. Their newest coaster, Spin-O-Saurus, is a junior spinning coaster that is still under construction and likely won’t be operating until next year.
Their newest operating coaster is Hornet, lived a former life as the Mayan Mindbender at the long-gone Six Flags AstroWorld. At that park, the coaster was located indoors, but Wonderland has installed it on an open concrete pad. It’s an interesting ride consisting largely of a continuous helix, though the excitement is a little on the low side.
Cyclone is the park’s oldest and most famous coaster, as it is one of the last two Miler Wild Mouse rides in existence. Tamer than its twin at Colorado’s Lakeside Amusement Park, it is nevertheless worthy of a ride for the historical value and the thrill of a coaster with absolutely no restraints at all.
The park’s last coaster is Mouse Trap, a Pinfari Zyklon that looks like something you’d find at a traveling carnival. Despite being larger than typical for this model of ride, Mouse Trap was not only my least favorite Zyklon (a style of ride I don’t particularly enjoy), but perhaps my least favorite coaster of the entire trip.
Beyond the coasters, Wonderland’s most noteworthy attraction is Fantastic Journey, a two-story old-school dark ride. Built in house but designed to resemble the Whacky Shack attractions by Bill Tracey, this lengthy attraction travels past primarily static scenes with lights and sounds to give riders a jump scare. It’s cheesy, but that’s what makes it fun. We also rode the Big Splash Log Flume (single drop model but still enjoyable), Drop of Fear (the sketchiest drop ride I’ve ever experienced), and the park’s skyride and monorail.
Overall, I can’t say I’d recommend going out of the way for Wonderland, but if you’re passing through Amarillo and have a couple hours to spare, it’s worth taking the time to stop by. While not a spectacular park by any means, it was still a more enjoyable place than even some of those on this trip, and it was great to just get out and enjoy something that I loved for the first time in a long while. The park is certainly rough around the edges, but it’s got a special character setting it apart from many others.
The next day, we made the drive from Amarillo to Oklahoma City. The state capital of Oklahoma, as well as the largest city in the Great Plains (and 25th in the country), this metropolis feels about as far from stereotypical southwest as you can get. Enormous skyscrapers form a densely packed downtown at which two major interstates intersect. Surrounding this, suburban sprawl extends to cover hundreds of square miles. This isn’t a city with two or three exits off the interstate, but one that takes a good thirty minutes to drive through. And, with a regional population of 1.4 million, it’s certainly a place large enough to host a theme park.
Enter Frontier City, Oklahoma’s only full-fledged amusement park. Dating back to 1958, this western themed park has a bit of history behind it. Originally, it was little more than a random tourist attraction along Route 66 that replicated an Oklahoma pioneer town similar to those created in the land rush. However, following a visit to Disneyland, the park’s creator James Burge decided to repurpose the attraction as an amusement park, building it up through the 1960s and 1970s. The park almost met its demise in the 1980s, but when the real estate boom slowed it came under the ownership of the Tierco Group, who then became Premier Parks, who then became Six Flags. They were responsible for making the park what it is today, with a majority of its attractions dating to that era. However, it was never a top earner, often receiving used rides from other parks in the chain. In 2006, the park was sold as part of a package deal to CNL Properties, who rounded out the lineup to feature more family-friendly attractions than those installed under Six Flags. The park transferred ownership to EPR Properties and Premier Parks was brought in to manage it next, but they did extraordinarily little in the way of capital improvements. Two years ago, Six Flags repurchased the park, and while I have no idea what it was like before, they seem to be putting quite a bit of care into the place.
Frontier City was the first Six Flags park to reopen following the COVID-19 closures, as well as the last Six Flags park north of the border I had yet to visit, so it seemed a natural fit into this road trip. Among all properties in the Six Flags chain, this park is unique as it lacks many of the trademarks associated with the brand. Roughly the size of Knott’s Ghost Town and themed fairly well throughout, this park is clearly aimed primarily at a family audience. A large gift shop at the entrance leads to a frontier town main street, and from here guests can access thirty attractions, among which stand five roller coasters.
The largest and most extreme coaster at Frontier City (and, as a matter of fact, in the entire state of Oklahoma) is Silver Bullet. Opening in 1986, 18 years prior to the more famous ride of the same name at Knott’s Berry Farm, Silver Bullet is the last remaining Schwarzkopf Looping Star in the United States.
A compact single loop coaster with a height of 80 feet, top speed of 47 MPH, and a short ride time, this is a fine first big coaster for the novice coaster rider and a great fit for the park. However, for a seasoned thrill seeker, the ride is a bit on the tame side.
My personal favorite coaster at Frontier City was instead Wildcat, an out and back wood coaster that dates back to the 1960s. Like many rides at Frontier City, this one began its life at Fairyland Park in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1977, with extensive damage from a storm and stiff competition from the nearby Worlds of Fun, Fairyland closed their gates, and many of the park’s rides sat there abandoned. In 1990, Frontier City purchased the ride, and rebuilt it in its current home (with significant structural replacement). With a height of 75 feet and a top speed of 46 MPH, this ride is definitely more in family coaster territory, but it is an enjoyable ride that runs reasonably well and offers a couple moments of light floater airtime.
The third major coaster at Frontier City is Diamond Back, a rare Launched Loop from Arrow Dynamics. This one was an internal relocation, formerly operating at Six Flags Great Adventure as Lightnin’ Loops before moving here. It’s a small, uncomfortable, rough ride with few redeeming qualities, and really only worth riding for the credit.
Frontier City also features two junior coasters. I passed on Frankie’s Mine Train, a standard Zamperla Family Gravity Coaster, but did take a spin on Steel Lasso, a Vekoma suspended family coaster that was among the better examples of the type I’ve experienced.
Beyond coasters, Frontier City has two notable attractions. First up is the Mystery River Log Flume, one of the better log flumes I’ve experienced. The ride begins with a dark ride section past several static scenes, then climbs a lift out of the building and immediately plunges down a small drop. From here, you weave past several more outdoor scenes, all themed to a western town, then climb a second lift for the big plunge at the end. It’s not spectacular, but still quite enjoyable and longer than many flume rides.
The park’s other notable non-coaster is Quick Draw, a Sally shooting dark ride installed as an upgrade on an original ride at the park. The attraction is western themed, as guests are tasked by the sheriff to catch a gang of Mexican bandits. What follows is a hilariously bad depiction of western tropes with racist stereotypes and caricatures of every cliché in the genre. It amazes me that such a thing is operating in a Six Flags park, especially since this ride was installed in the late 2000s. It’s definitely a contender for worst shooting dark ride I’ve ridden, especially since the guns were only working intermittently.
Many of Silver Dollar City’s other attractions are fairly standard Six Flags fare, with a good mix of flat rides and several other staples (antique cars, river rapids, railroad, etc.). Many had western names and western props, including a couple that would never be built in today’s world. The park also had a couple scheduled shows, namely a stunt show and a magic show. We watched the latter, and while it didn’t bring anything new to the table it was a decent way to get out of the heat and sun for a half hour.
In my initial planning, I allotted three hours for Frontier City. We were done and out of there within two. It’s a small park and had no lines whatsoever, so it was easy to finish everything quickly. That said, it wasn’t a bad park, and hardly felt like a Six Flags park to me.
Theming was decent throughout, operations were fine, and advertisements weren’t in your face every time you turned the corner. Despite a weak coaster selection, I’d actually place the park above a couple of the lower tier Six Flags parks (namely America and Darien Lake), as well as the two other parks that have yet to receive the Six Flags branding. It’s not somewhere worth going significantly out of the way for, but if you’re in the vicinity of Oklahoma City, have a couple hours to spare, and have a Six Flags pass in your pocket, it’s well worth checking out.
The third new park of the tour wouldn’t come until a bit later. Following our time in Branson, we made our way down to Texas by driving through Arkansas. Here, we stopped in the town of Hot Springs, located adjacent to Hot Springs National Park. The day here featured some time exploring that park, which will be covered in next week’s report. Afterward, however, we made our way over to Magic Springs Theme and Water Park, the only proper amusement park in the state.
Magic Springs has a bit of a rough history behind it. The park opened in 1978, but floundered along racking up debt and changing hands a couple times. Eventually, in 1995, the park was shut down. Five years later, the park reopened under new management, with about two-thirds of their attractions replaced and a waterpark added. Attendance now exceeded expectations, so the park grew throughout the 2000s before stagnating in the late 2000s. It was sold to CNL Properties and became a sibling park to Frontier City. Much of the same ownership changes happened until Six Flags returned, at which point the two separated as Magic Springs remained a part of Premier Parks. Today, it has two sister parks…Elitch Gardens in Colorado and Wild Waves in Washington.
As someone who has experienced the other two parks operated by Premier, my expectations were low upon entering Magic Springs. My past visits to the chain’s parks were both lackluster, and neither is a park I feel any desire to return to at this time. However, I had a bit more optimism for Magic Springs, as the park offered two notable coasters: Arkansas Twister, a sizable out-and-back wood coaster that formerly operated at Florida’s Boardwalk and Baseball before its demise, and X Coaster, the only Maurer SkyLoop in North America. In typical Premier fashion, that excitement evaporated when I saw both coasters listed on the closed attractions sign at the front gate.
Had I not purchased a ticket previously, I would have eaten the parking cost and left at that point. However, with pre-purchased tickets we decided to make the most out of the day. Entering the park, we walked past closed ride after closed ride until reaching the park’s sole operating major coaster, Gauntlet.
A Vekoma SLC, there is nothing unique about this attraction, and the ride was middle of the pack compared to others of the same model. I rode twice solely because it was the only major coaster operating, then it was time to move on.
The next coaster I came across was Diamond Mine Run, a Miler family coaster (though more junior sized). I generally don’t bother with these if I’m not with other enthusiasts seeking the credit, but given the number of closed rides and the lack of a line I opted to give it a spin. As expected, the ride was pretty typical for this class of ride.
The last operating coaster in the park was an Arrow Mine Train named Big Bad John. This one began life as the second track of Six Flags St. Louis’s River King Mine Train, then got sent off to Dollywood before arriving here. It is one of the better mine trains I’ve experienced, especially among those featuring three lift hills, but still came in last among the four on this trip. However, this was the last mine train in North America for me to experience, so I’m glad to say I’ve completed the set.
The coasters complete, we did a few of the generic flat rides, but we were really pretty much done with the park an hour after arriving. Not wanting to waste the $40 admission, we grabbed a mediocre lunch and then I opted to retrieve my swimsuit from the car and head into the waterpark. I said previously that I never felt unsafe at a theme park due to COVID and that is true, but inside the waterpark I felt less safe than elsewhere. With no masks, distancing taken as a suggestion, and a fair number of the patrons showing an attitude that the virus was not a big deal, this was a completely different scenario than elsewhere. Since the lines were only ten minutes and the whole place was outdoors, I did a few of the most interesting slides and then called it a day, but had it been busier or indoors I would have noped out almost immediately.
Because of everything going on this year, I want to give Magic Springs the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps in a typical year the experience is better. That said, this was one of the most disappointing visits I’ve had to a park, and I would put the quality of this place on par with Elitch Gardens. It’s not an absolutely terrible park, and the setting in the hills of Arkansas is actually quite nice. However, the operations are poor and nothing about it jumps out as a reason to visit. I’ll definitely be back if I’m ever in the area again as I missed the top two coasters, but this is definitely not a park I’m prioritizing a return to anytime soon.
There are two other places we visited worthy of a mention in this report, both in the Houston region of Texas. First up of these is Kemah Boardwalk, a bayside park located in the town of Kemah. While technically a theme park, this place is more a collection of flat rides mixed in with restaurants. The entire complex is operated by Landry’s, Inc. and features several of their signature brands, including Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Saltgrass Steak House, and Landry’s Seafood, where we opted to have lunch. With a location right on the bay, you have a nice view of passing boats while you dine. I’ve never found Landry’s to be amazing, but the food was still good…far better than that you’d get at most theme parks, and a nice change from the previous couple days of the tour.
Of course, I wouldn’t go all the way out to Kemah Boardwalk without a reason, so there was still a coaster to ride. Dubbed Boardwalk Bullet, the ride is a very compact wooden coaster designed by the Gravity Group. Due to space constraints, the plot of land this 96 ft tall ride occupies is under an acre. However, 3,200 ft of twisted track are squeezed into this space, forming a ride that twists over, under, around, and through itself. It is the most popular ride at Kemah Boardwalk, and the largest coaster in the Houston area. At $6 a pop, I opted to buy two tickets…my dad only went once.
So, how was the ride? To be honest, a little disappointing. This coaster is generally considered among the top 50 wood coasters in the US (it’s 2019 rank in the Golden Ticket Awards was 31) due to its fast pace, relentless ride, and strong airtime. Presumably because the train had less than ten riders on both of my laps, it didn’t feel quite as relentless as the ride looks in videos and the airtime wasn’t as strong as I was expected. Still, it’s a cool layout, runs quite well, and probably lands somewhere in the 40s on my wood list of over a hundred. I’ll put it this way…I enjoyed the ride, and would ride it again if I returned to Kemah Boardwalk on a future trip. However, I wouldn’t go out of my way just for another ride on it.
After Kemah Boardwalk, we made a 45-minute drive down to Galveston with the plan to visit the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier. Unfortunately, this outing didn’t go as planned. Due to reduced demand, the pier was operating on a limited schedule, with rides not opening until 4 P.M. As a result, we spent an hour on the beach looking out at the Gulf of Mexico before any activity began above. When we got up onto the pier, we quickly learned that three rides would not be in operation, including the park’s only coaster: Iron Shark. Disappointed, we opted to leave rather than to pay for a visit, as none of the other rides looked particularly interesting. I’ll be back in Texas again at some point in the future, and at that time I’ll return to give Iron Shark a go. Besides, there’s plenty in the Houston area I missed out on since many tourist attractions were either closed or in limited operation this time.
The new parks of this trip were nothing special, yet each provided a few hours of fun. I’m not sure any warrant a return visit aside from picking up missed coasters, but I’d probably stop by were I in the area again. I have no idea when that might be, as many of these parks are quite far out of the way. Magic Springs could probably be tacked onto a return visit to Silver Dollar City, and Galveston could fit into a Texas or Louisiana trip, but as of right now future plans are calling me elsewhere. Still, I’m glad I had the chance to visit these places, both because I can check off a few out of the way parks I likely wouldn't have gotten to otherwise and because exploring new places is a large part of the fun for me.Tweet
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