Pandemic Adventures through the Southeast Volume 6: Carowinds

August 3, 2021, 2:52 PM

As our nearly 2-week long vacation amidst a global pandemic was drawing to an end, we came to the last theme park of our trip, Carowinds. This Cedar Fair park in the southern suburbs of Charlotte actually straddles 2 states, North Carolina and South Carolina. I’ve been to Carowinds a few times over the past decade for the Fury 325 and Intimidator media days and also during work trips to the region, but this would be my son’s very first trip here and my wife’s first visit in over a decade. We carved out a day and a half to see the whole park, which ended up being more than enough time to experience all of the big rides, all of the unique flat rides, and even a few hours in the connected water park, Carolina Harbor.

When we visited at the beginning of July, the park was still requiring reservations, so we made sure to secure those for both the theme park and water park over a week ahead of time because of reports that days were selling out for season passholders (we have Cedar Fair Platinum Passes). Both days when we arrived at the park, there were numerous signs showing that reservations were required for entry and that no reservations were remaining for the day. Reservations are no longer required for Carowinds, but based on the crowds and lines we observed throughout our time in the park, the reservation system was effectively limiting capacity that kept the lines manageable.

The most recently installed roller coaster would be our first destination of the morning on Friday. Copperhead Strike follows the trend of recently installed Cedar Fair coasters with elevated theming. The LSM launching coaster from Mack has a lot in common with Manta at Sea World San Diego with a short dark ride segment before launching into the main part of the course. However, Copperhead Strike has some interesting and dynamic elements that make it one of most unique launched roller coasters I’ve ever ridden. The thrills start right out of the gate as the coaster negotiates a “JoJo” roll just after leaving the station (similar to Hydra at Dorney Park).

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This ultra-slow corkscrew ensures that guests have left nothing in their pockets as the train hangs riders upside down for what seems like 3 seconds before coasting into a barn. Inside the barn, a video with a family of moonshiners plays out to the left of the train before one of the stills explodes to launch the train back outside. After the launch, the train goes through a vertical loop with oodles of hangtime at the top as the train has just enough speed to clear the loop.

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After that is a series or quick turns and inversions through a spaghetti-bowl of track before emerging through a second launch up into a cutback inversion and a second vertical loop. The course finishes with a series of tight turns, which is a bit anticlimactic for what otherwise is a solid layout. Copperhead Strike uses extremely comfortable lap bars that leaves riders’ upper bodies completely free, which is particularly invigorating through the slow-moving inversions. I think if the last third of the coaster had another inversion or some other unique element, Copperhead Strike would be up there with the best coasters in the world, but the lackluster finish really drags down my overall impression of this ride. I did like the plentiful theming elements and the ability of the coaster to pack a lot of unique moves into a relatively compact layout. One annoying thing about Copperhead Strike is that it is one of 2 coasters in the park where guests cannot bring loose articles into the queue and station that cannot fit into a secured pocket or fanny pack. This includes refillable cups that the park sells to guests, which must be left in a locker at an extra cost. I despise parks that establish safety policies that appear to be in place for the sole purpose of making money, especially when every other attraction in the park aside from Copperhead Strike and Fury 325 allowed guests to leave loose articles in the station during the ride. Instead of allowing the park to nickel and dime us for a locker rental for our cup every time we wanted to ride Fury 325 and Copperhead Strike, we left our cup in discrete spots in the locker area hoping that no one would walk off with it. Fortunately, we never lost the cup, but guests should not be forced to make this choice in the first place, regardless of the profile and popularity of a coaster.

Speaking of Fury 325, the B&M giga-coaster would be the ride we rode the most over our time at Carowinds. The airtime, positive g’s, and silky smooth transitions place this coaster solidly in virtually every top 25 list, and for me, it ranks somewhere in the middle of my top 10. Zach couldn’t get enough of this coaster, and if not for a 6-hour drive home Sunday night, would have probably kept on riding Fury over and over until they kicked him of, just as I did at the coaster’s Media Day back in 2015. Luckily, we should be getting a good comparison between Fury 325 and Orion, as we’re heading to Kings Island later this week.

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Afterburn (formerly Top Gun The Jet Coaster before Paramount sold their portfolio of theme parks) would be Zach’s first custom-layout inverted coaster, and he was rightfully impressed. In my book, Montu and Alpengeist are the best of the bunch because of their top notch theming, but Afterburn is in the next tier of inverts along with Raptor, Banshee, and Talon. The best part of Afterburn is that it powers through its 6 intense inversions without an MCBR. Afterburn is all about the high-g maneuvers and rapid-fire inversions that leaves riders guessing which way is up.

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Before Fury 325 dominated the Carowinds skyline, Intimidator was the biggest coaster in the park. This B&M hypercoaster uses a staggered seating layout found on more recent designs, and has a layout optimized for airtime. Unlike Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion, Carowinds’ Intimidator still features all of the NASCAR theming, but just doesn’t measure up to the Intamin giga-coaster or the best B&M hypercoasters.

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Overall, Carowinds has a wide array of other coasters to fill out its collection. I managed to drag Zach on Hurler, the only remaining wooden coaster in the park (Thunder Road was removed to make way for Copperhead Strike), since I explained to him that an identical coaster was converted into what now is Twisted Timbers at Kings Dominion. After riding Hurler, I was reminded why Kings Dominion let RMC work their magic, and Zach was curious why Carowinds hasn’t done the same. Even with various trim brakes throughout the course, the coaster is still really rough and not even that thrilling since you end up spending more time bracing for the next jarring maneuver than enjoying any part of this borderline painful experience.

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I ended up riding Nighthawk by myself since Zach wanted to spend some time in the waterpark. This coaster has a pretty interesting history that most average guests know nothing about. First, Nighthawk was the first flying roller coaster in the world when it opened as Stealth at what was Paramount’s Great America. In 2004, Paramount shipped the coaster to Carowinds and rethemed it as Borg Assimilator complete with a massive Borg Cube in the central lagoon beneath the track. When Paramount sold the park, Cedar Fair renamed it Nighthawk and removed at the Star Trek theming. While this coaster pre-dates Batwing at SFA and Nighthawk (recently removed from Kings Island to make room for Orion), I like the slight differences in the layout on Nighthawk with its finishing corkscrews in lieu of the inline twists on the second generation Vekoma flyers. However, I really miss the Star Trek theming, what was especially cool when riding at night.

Vortex is among the dying breed of stand-up coasters. What’s worse is that on Thursday, the park was only operating Vortex with a single train, which is frankly negligent given the time it takes to load a stand-up train. The park was operating Vortex with 2 trains on Sunday, so we felt fortunate to have waited to ride this sub-par experience when the line was virtually walk-on.

Carolina Cyclone is one of the first generation of Arrow looping coasters in the world, and is still gives a pretty decent ride highlighted by the double helix finale. It can’t hold a candle to the elder iconic Loch Ness Monster, but among the thinning herd of 40+ year old loopers, Carolina Cyclone is still worth a ride or two given a reasonable 15-20 minute wait.

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The nearby Flying Cobras is a stock Vekoma boomerang, but the train has the newer ratcheting vest restraints found on Blue Steel at SFoG. As with Blue Steel, the redesigned restraints cut down on the head-banging, but it still doesn’t place this coaster among the park’s top 5.

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In the same general vicinity is Carowind’s mine train, Carolina Goldrusher. This coaster is the only won remaining from when Carowinds opened in 1973. This double-lift Arrow mine train has a pretty boring layout with two helixes and a tunnel finish. There are far better versions of Arrow mine trains around the country, but given a relatively short wait, it’s worth a ride just to mix things up on a busy day of coaster riding.

Given that Zach is now tall enough for all of the “big” coasters at theme parks, he’s no longer interested in the “family” coasters, so we ultimately skipped Kiddy Hawk (Vekoma family invert), Ricochet (wild mouse), and Woodstock Express (junior woodie). However, we did ride a couple of Carwinds’ unique flat rides. Electrospin is a bizarre attraction where guests are seated along six giant arms. As the ride starts, the arms spin around a central hub while the hub rises above the ground. The arms are then free to spin like a Huss Top Spin, and fling rides head over heels depending on the weight distribution along the arm. It’s definitely one of the more interesting flat rides I’ve ever been on, but I’m not sure I would want to ride this type of ride repeatedly.

We also hopped on Scream Weaver, which is a classic Enterprise flat ride, and Drop Tower, a 174’ Intamin freefall ride.

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Given that most of the rest of the attractions in the park were copies of other rides we’ve ridden elsewhere, we did spend a few hours in Carowinds water park, Carolina Harbor. Featuring 2 wave pools, dozens of slides, 2 kid’s splash areas, and a lazy river, this water park is big, but doesn’t necessarily have any unique attractions. We enjoyed the Blackbeard’s Revenge slide complex and its trio of trap door slides as well as the newest slide complex Boogie Board Racer where riders slide head-first on foam mats to try to beat their friends down the twisting slides.

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Aside from a midday thunderstorm on Friday, the weather was perfect for a day at the waterpark, and we observed that on both days that lines and crowds were heavier in Carolina Harbor than they were in the main theme park.

We didn’t get to every ride, slide, and attraction at Carowinds, but we felt that the day and a half was plenty to experience most of what the park has to offer. Eventually it was time to make our way back home, and finish our Pandemic Adventures through the Southeast. We went through five states, logged over 1,000 miles, and had amazing experiences over our nearly 2 weeks all amidst a global pandemic. While we never came across a situation where we felt unsafe, there were some instances where we felt safety and spacing could have been a bit better. Importantly, have the freedom of our own car gave us the flexibility and peace of mind to be able to walk away from any situation if we felt truly uncomfortable. However, creating those memories and actually taking our first vacation in nearly 18 months was important for us that outweighed any apparent risk. The 3 theme parks we visited we ones that had been on our to-do list for some time, and it was great to finally get back around to these solid theme parks that are all within a reasonable driving distance of our home.

Replies (2)

August 3, 2021, 5:50 PM

Another wonderful report! Thank you for sharing.

August 14, 2021, 2:57 PM

Cedar Fair has given up on trying to get young professionals to relocate to Sandusky as most of their corporate jobs are in the Charlotte office now (which is 10 minutes from Carowinds). With all of the growth in south east, when looking at CF's parks profile, they probably figured that's where talented people would be most willing to live. At this point Carowinds is basically the companies home park.

In order to be a good park IMO they really need to take out their old bad rides and replace them with new ones. All the rides in the middle of the park (Boomerang, Vekoma Flyer, the real old B&M standup, Vekoma mini suspended coaster) are just awful, and funny enough they are all right next to each other. If they took those all out and put in a few new good coasters and gave Hurler the Twisted Timbers treatment it would go from being one of the weaker big parks in the country to one of the best

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