"Don't be saying coaster enthusiasts have a one track mind!"
February 27 was the 7th annual Winter SOAR, which is a regional off-season event for our ACe region. The event was born out of the simple idea of getting together in the middle of the off season for dinner and some presentations by parks, entertainment venues, and ride manufacturers, and other related businesses. The first two were held at local dinners, and after the presentations were over, we'd all head to Wonderpark to get a ride or two on the Boa Squeeze kiddie coaster. Hey, in Ohio,in February, you do what you have to do!
In 2006, Kings Island upped the ante, primarily because they wanted to show off their new kid's area. So the event was moved to the International Restaurant and featered a park construction and off season tour, followed by the dinner and presentations. It worked out so well we did it the same way in 2007 with a Firehawk construction tour. In 2008, Kings Island had nothing to show off, so it was back to scrambling for a banquet room we could use for the dinner and presentations. 2009, Kings Island wanted to show off Diamondback, so the event returned to the park with a construction tour.
In 2010, the event went a whole new direction, this time being hosted by local train themed FEC, EnterTRAINment Junction, and I noted Kings Island really has nothing to show off this year. That follows the trend of past years. One of the changes that came with the move is the event became an all day event - during the day you got a wristband to enjoy the activities offered by EnterTRAINment Junction including special behind the scenes tours, then after the place closed for the night, we took over the Junction Cafe for the dinner and presenations. So Rideman and I pre-registered for the event. Looking over the schedule we noted the tours start at 1:30, and the dinner is at 6. It was advised to arrive by 2 to ensure you could take full advantage of all the activities offered. With that, more by chance than by planing, we arrived around 1:40.
Our first problem would be dealing with the full parking lot, I mean all the parking spaces seemed to be taken and people were starting to form creative parking spaces. We did find a single spot left along the side of the building, a spot that most probably didn't want to bother with due to the tight turn in caused by a creatively parked van. Rideman suggested that the building is probably infested with a lot of small children, just look at the dispropotionate number of vans and SUVs (aka soccer mom mobiles) in the parking lot.
So we park and we head around the front of the building where we could get a look at the outdoor hand car ride that is only open in the summer months, then headed around to the front doors. Big signs on the front doors alerted us to the fact this was Thomas the Train month. and an all inclusive ticket is just $12.99.
We step inside and the SOAR reigstration table is front and center inside the front doors. We seemed to arrive at a popular arrival time, so after waiting in a bit of a line, we were checked in. Upon check in we were issued all day wristbands, a door prize ticket, and then invited to some giveaway items. SOAR really got its start with Jeff Siebert who is now with Schlitterbahn. Jeff still keeps in touch with the group, and sent a lot of swag to the event. It was a "Choose one item from column A" which had eithter a keyring or a Squueze/stress toy of the iconic Schlitterbahn lighthouse/caslte thing, this toy also doubles as a business card holder or photo holder. Knowing my love of flags, Rideman suggested the photo/card holder on top of the building could be a flagpole. In column B it was a choice between two styles of Schlitterbahn patch, then every body got a mysterious Schlitterbahn envelope that was marked top secret, and not to open until instructed. Further down the giveaways was a Kings Island magnet with the Scooby charaters, and an EnterTRAINment junction brochure. After collecting all the swag, we were informed of some optional activities we could sign up for. One was a behind the scenes tour of the train layout, and we took spaces in the next available group (3:00), and then a tour of the haunted house (we got a 5:00 time, to be fair there were only two offerings, 4 and 5), in addition you could enter a scavenger hunt to win a jigsaw puzzle froom EnterTRAINment Junction. We picked up our list of clues .
Then, in accordance with coaster event time honored ritual and custom, we did not go charging into the park, instead we went charging back to the parking lot to drop off all the swag and any event materials we would not actually need in the event.
We re-entered the building, and deicded since the Funhouse Junction is right up front, to go through the funhouse first. I noted there was nobody at the ticket check barrier, so we went on in. The first thing we noticed is that the work lights seemed to be on as the whole funhouse was lit up brighter than I remember it being last year. The layout was basically the same as last year. First you walk down a forboding hallway (not so much in bright light), then through the mirror maze. I like the big wall mirror across from the exit to the mirror maze so if you look out the exit from inside the maze you just see more maze. The vortex tunnel was on and working well, so well that Rideman forcefully resisted my efforts to clog the path so he could enjoy the effect some more.
After the Vortex tunnel things do downhill in the middle section. The dark laughing hallway isnow a brightly lit room, the speakers shut off and the partitions that made you zig zag through the darkened room are gone, so basically no stunt in that room, then it was into the psychaellic room which just seemed to be another waste. We then headed into the industrial chain link fence maze. We could see some trip sensors that were supposed to fire off some effects, none of which seemed to be working, and I noted it didn't seem near as forboding with the bright lights on. They have added some fabric to the lower half of the chaink link fencing. It's a real smple maze, and another waste. Next up was the real maze where you go through a maze of cubicles with red and white fabric seperatig each cube. When you push through the fabric will you find a passage or a wall. There seemed to be no dead end paths, howeer. Things are getting back to normal except for the light, I recall this being very dim before.
Perhaps the best workig stunt was the claustropia room, where two big air pillows inflate so they are right next to each other and you have topush you way through the center of the two. The last room, the hurricane room with the strong fans seemed to be working, then you exit back out into the lobby. Okay, that was good for all of three minutes.
We entered the train station, showed our wristbands at the ticket barrier and went out the back door of the station into the Train Journey. Train Journey is a very impressive 25,000 square foot model train layout. Not only that its highly detailed with attention to historical detail, and the whole layout follows a chronological organization, so you start with the early years of railroading and by the end you are looking at a modern downtown city and major railway cargo center. We pull out our lime green scavenger hunt papers and get to work. I was reminded of a tip I was given back in April "The items on our scavenger hunt are listed in the order they will appear on the layout, so if you see an item further down the paper, you know yo have to go back and look for others. " We did a quick rundown of the list, and noted the bonus tiebreaker at the bottom. "How many dinosaurs are there in the exhibit?" This is another gae they play, sometimes its easter bunnies, sometimes its little models of the owner, this time its dinos. They are well hidden and provide a good challenge to find. Well, it would have been a good challenge if Dave didn't note that right before we entered the layour, there is a rack with 6 or more different scavenger hunt lists and a sign with other things to watch for. One of the signs read "Can you find the eight dinosaurs hidden inside?" We never spotted a dinosaur, but we put down a pretty good scientific guess.
Another neat thing they do is free loaner step stools so the little ones can see the layout better. You pick one up off a pile at the start, and drop it off at the end. I didn't grab an extra copy of the hunt, but the questions were mostly straightforward. Well except they were also tricky. One asked for the year off of a dry goods store, and its the second dry goods store you come to, you have to match the full name. I showed Rideman the civil war encampment which you would never see from the ground if you didn't get up on a step to look over part of the layout.
Further along we were mesmerized by a switchback railway, the train went up the hill empty, and then came back down with fully loaded cars. Just after the switchback, you come to Imagination Station which is the kids area of sorts. Here they have the kids climbing structure (decorated with lots of american flags), a toy train big enough to play in, a handcar yoou can play with, a crafts area, some smaller layouts, thomas the train tables to play with, and even a small coin operated kiddie train ride. We ooked around before continuing. For the next portion of the layout the outer wall of the exhibit is lined with the "America Railroading Museum" which gives the history side of railroading. You go through a tunnel which takes you from the early days into the middle period. Now its the 1940's50's. Rideman spotted a poster for the Fox Theatre on a trolley stop in the city and spent quite a while using a camera with zoom lens and magnification to try to read the little poster (for the scanvenger hunt of course) I continued around the corner where I came face to face with the Fox Theatre in the model city with a large and easily legibile marquee. Rideman even noted the poster advertised a diffeent show than the actual theatre. Further along we came to a drive in moie scene, and being an AV guy, Rideman indicated it would be neat touse a mini projector to actually show a cliip from Zorro on the screen.
We also noted the automation in place with trains stopping at stations and the like, sound queues such as the alarm bell ringing at the jail where a prison break is occuring, The exhibit is interactive with buttons ever now and then to activate a sound cue or cause some minor part of the layout to function. After the drive in, you go up a flight of stairs to take a look at the layout from the impressive vantagepoint of a huge glassed in gallery. Also upstairs they had a model olt time hand carved circus model that is o loan to them. Back down the stairs the exhibit continues, Antoter tunnel and you are into the modern era. The level of detail in the modern era goes down as a lot of the buildings in the modern downtown are flat cardboard stand ins for future handcrafted fully detailed buildings. We noted the changing expo hall where you can watch the volunteers at work has been taken over by a Thomas The Train kidie train ride. We continue through the layout and Ido hope the one skydiver towards the end pulls his ripcord, the skydiver next to him is lower than him and has already pulled.
As with any good tourist attraction, you exit out into the gift shop. We though we were cutting it close on our tour time, so we rushed through the shop just to find out the tours are running late so our time had been rescheduled for 3:30. We taled a bit with the registration table people. I thought they were nuts for wanting to run the marathon, they thought I was nuts for wanting to to the stair race at the Carew Tower. We also looked around the hobby shop to kill some time and got into a conversation with a man who was working in the hobby class workshop area. 18 birthday parties today, no wonder it is so crowded.
Around 3:30 we make our way to the train station to meet Don Oeaters for our behind the scenes tour. A year ago at SOAR we had heard that a lot of theme park design principles went into this project. The first one you see is upon enterng the building the lobby area is done up as old time small town USA. The party rooms, shops, and the like are all in period storefronts, and being a train display, the main entrance and ticket sales area is the train station. Besides it only felt proper that if we had to wait, it should be at the train station.
Now, given those 18 parties and the crowd today, talking in the main lobby was not ideal, so even before pleasantries were exchanged we were wisked into the gift shop. Don proceeded to walk behind the checkout counter, and the group paused and waited to be sure it was eally OK. I mean, it does feel sort of awkward to walk behind the counter. The train station is setup with the ticket office on one end and the gift shop on the other. In between the two is sort of a front line office. We quickly ducked through the office, and through a doorway and then we were into a different world.
Remember those theme park design principles I talked about, well in the center of the layout is a mountain, and I'm not talking any mountain, I'm talking the Mt. Everest of model railroad mountains. From outside the mountain, the mountain serves as a pretty scenic backdrop, and also serves as visual shielding. As you progress through the layout, you porgress through time, and the mountain visually shields you from ever being able to see two conflicting time eras at the same time.
When we got inside the mountain, Don Oeters first gave us the introduction. The idea behind Entertrainment Junction is that members of the local model railroading club got together and thought that it would be a really neat idea to pool resources and build one giant layout that the public could enjoy. It all sounded very good, except, in Don's own words "Who would be DUMB enough to buy the building"
Well, guess what, Don is the guy who was 'dumb' enough. He tells us he had been fortunate in a major local business, and got together with a few like minded individuals and were able to secure the current building. The current building was a furniture store, and as Don said, he started out looking at a much smaller building. It would come as no suprise that every time he started looking at a larger building, the costs also went up. But, he also figured out that the larger the building the more money making potential it had.
He decided that they could buy a small building, and just put a model layout inside and call it a day, but then they would be limiting their audience to just model railroad people. Look around the current building, besides the model layout, their are also major profit centers in the party rooms during the day and meeting rooms and banquet rooms at night. For the hobbiest there is a hobby shop, lessons in building models, and the like. For the kids there is Imagination Station with a big climbing structure and smaller kid sized layouts, along with child appropriate crafts and activities. For the railroad history buff, there is the American Raildoading Museum, To build a repeat business, there is the expo hall with changing exhibits along with the walk through attractions. For most of the year it is an old time style funhouse, in October its a haunted house, in December its a holiday 'department store' style display, and a telling of Christmas Carol as only they can tell it. Even the railroad model can interest multiple groups, from those that appreicate model railroading, to those that appreciate the craftsmanship of the layout, to those that appreciate the historical perspective presented.
Yes, the model layout is a walk through lesson in US history. For example, in scene 2, you will notice what I think is the only area in the whole display with a raised platform. That is becuase unless you are really tall, it is the only way you can see the US Civil war enampment. In front of the civil war encampement is a long bridge where both ends look to be properly built and the center looks to be build with anything they could come up with. Don let us know this comes from a true story. There was a key bridge over a valley the confederate side burned down in the name of military strategy. The union side rebuilt that bridge overnight using literally whatever they could find. He claimed there are little lessons like that all the way through the layout.
We talked about the mountain, and how its made with spray foam, and since they use so much spray foam, they had a method setup to collect the excess so they could reuse it. In some areas the mountain is paper thin, and in other places its very thick. That's how they are able to carve in the texture. We learned that inside the mountian is just as important as outside the mountain. He said there is just as much track in the mountain than out. The idea is the train comes out a tunnel, goes on its merry way through its part of the show, then goes back into another tunnel, where it cycles back around inside the mountain back to its start point, He noted we may see switch yards and the like out on the layout, but those are purely for show, and real functional switching and the like takes place on a switch yard inside the mountain.
We talked about how on some tracks there is only one train, one other tracks there are multiple trains traveling in the same direction, and yet others with multiple trains heading in opposite directions. The key to making this work is a computerized system quite similar to a block safety system on a rollercoaster. He admitted at first the system didn't quite work right, and they had 4 head on crashes in one day. The kids loved it, those responsible for maintaining the trains, not so much. This works on a logic based system where each train has magnets under it that trip sensors that tell the computer where the trains are.
We walked around inside the mountain and we saw ever now and then the control consoles. Each tracks panel has some computer chips that have that tracks program buned into them. He said for the tech geeks, the programming was done in C++. Also on the console are the manual train controls so they could run the system by hand if they had to. He noted at first it took 20 minutes to get the layout turned on or off, now its down to 5 minutes, and eventually when they get all the tracks computer systems are networked together it will be almost instantaneous. It was also noted the system has a battery back up now that it didn't originally, this allows the system to remember the last position of all trains in the event of a power failure.
Of course, we all know that eventually the layout will need hands on care in the process of improving it or maintaining it. If the area is close to the walking trail, the plexiglass shields coe out very easy to allow access. But sometimes that just does't work. In those case there are trapdoors in the layout. Certain building or other areas that are hinged and open up like a trapdoor. This allows them to climb up through the trap door and work on the layout. Talking about climbing up on the layout, anyplace in the layout that is flat is strong enough to support a man standing on it, yes this includes the track. The track pieces are soildered together.
The theming is good, I mean we are inside the mountain, and what does it look like, a cave! That's good. Just like a cave, you have to look out for low clearances, tight and narrow spaces, dim lighting, 'mine track' running all over the place and the like. Also just like a cave it is massive, and allows them to get all around the layout part of the attraction without using the seerpentine walking trail and fighting their way through the crowds.
We walked a good portion of the cave, being careful not to get to close to the trains running on tracks right next to where we are walking, He noted that we might have noticed the trains and the layout might be bigger than we are used to seeing. We would be right, as most model layouts are built to HO scale, but this layout is built to G scale. G for 'garden scale' hearkening back to the days when the model railroad people put them in their gardens. Now most of the sets here are built in house, but he noted in the modern city they are building a subway system, well it just so happens no commerical firm makes a G scale subway train. We then got to watch a train come in, park itself, and another train go out to take its place.
I noted he at least inferred to the fact they have no debt, and a lot of the skilled work (train layout design, maintenance and construction) is volunteer help, you can see how they can make a go of this. In fact, he noted they were voted the top FEC in the state.
We walked out a door and looked at part of the layout. He noted parts of the layout that have been added in recent months, as the layout is constantly being improved upon, and as he said will never be finished. He noted we might have noted the modern city scene has far less detail than the other parts. Its mostly off the shelf buildings. He said instead of changing over one part at a time, they are going to save it all up, and do it all at once. He pointed out one of the dinosaurs, and pointed out there are also little miniatures of him on the layout. It's there version of "Where's Waldo!" a fun inside game. Since he told the first group, he is telling every group there are 8 of the dinosaurs. Speaking of the scavenger hunt, he commented that they have 6 different ones, and that some people thing its just a way to keep the kids occupied, but in reality they are for everybody as a tool to get them to look at the detail in the layout.
He then showed us monitor that shows us when they put a microcamera on some of the trains to create POV video, and what coaster enthusiast doesn't like POV video. He also pointed out we should go upstairs to the overlook gallery to look at the circus layout. Its not a train layout perse,but its a hand carved turn of century circus that is now an antique. Its on loan here till september.
Next he pointed out the tour we are getting is not the usual tour, but he is opening up to us. He next took us into the train repair shop, which is not part of the tour. In part of the room is the shop. He noted that even if a train is deemed beyond repair, it can still serve as a static display. In the same room are to big black cabinets, one houses the audio cues, the other has the automation. Next to the second one is the computer used to program the system. Don noted eventually they want to add all kinds of lighting to the layouts so they can have day/night cycles, and even smell cues.
Don then said the next part of the tour is the expo hall, but owing to the fact it has a Thomas Train ride in it right now, we have to go the back way. We can either walk as a group along the trail all the way to the end then out to the back door, or we can use the cave. Problem is, the cave entrance from the repair room requires us to crawl under part of the train layout. He said he was cool with whatever we chose. Well, since we aren't kids anymore, and deep down nobody wants to be responsible for damaging the layout,we opted to walk around the trail. When we got as far as the door we used to come out of the cave, Don realizes we could enter the cave their and so we quickly zoomed through the cave, out through the cashiers area, through the gift shop, down the lobby, and then through a doorway that went into the expo hall.
In a corner of the expo hall, he had the blueprintts, topographic maps and scale models so we could see how everything was designed. Next to theat there was a working animated amusemet park that he let us look at for maybe 15 seconds. Not to blame him, as this was our chance to walk through the active ride area while it was being loaded. We even blatantly ignored signs saying NOT to do this, I guess when you are with the owner, its OK.
We saw the board room, and then went to watch the artisans at work. In the back half of the expo hall is where the sets get built. From there, we went into another area that is not usually part of the tour, the warehouse. The first part is a workshop tool crib with just about any tool they could ever possibly need, then there is the warehouse. Some interesting points is they recently acquired a famous Lionel train layout, I won't reveal the name as to not spoil there thunder, but the parts of that layout take up one end of the warehouse, along with the big 40'x40' tent it used to be diaplyed in. Another part of the warehouse has all the stuff from Winterfest the one year PKI had Winterfest. When they decided to discontinue it after one season, he went in with an offer to buy everything. Some of it he resold through the gift shop, other stuff he is keeping just waiting for a use. It was noted that most of the management and upper level staff came from Kings Island, so if you note a theme park influence, now you know why.
We then caught the opportunity to walk back through the expo hall, and here we got more time to look at the amusement park part of the layout. We were then dismissed back into the lobby, Here, Dave and I walked the train journey again, this time it was Dave's video and photo tour of the layout.
When we re-emerged we learned the haunted house tour we had booked for 5 had been moved to 5:15. We decided to use the extra 15 minutes for a sit down and relax break. This tour was much shorter, and took us through the back haunted house area. This is actually a clever haunted house as with just a few minor changes in props, it can become the setting for a comical two man telling of the Christmas Carol, a kid friendly tirck or treat path by day, or a frightening haunted house by night, We walked through the haunt with him pointing out the scare effects and what they do, or how each room has double purposes for the two events. It was moderately interesting ifyou are into that sort of thing, and I don't really think our group was. I did note how they have two rooms that look exactly the same to fool the person into thinking they are going around in circles, and I recall Kings Island used the same tactic with slaughterhouse.
Again the tour exited to the lobby. Here the event turned into a working event for Rideman as he brought the A/V stuff. I got to sit around, socialize and chat and Rideman got to figure out how to setup equipment in a strnage environment and deal with what looked like a stubborn laptop. Don't worry everything came together.
We were all sitting there talking when we heard an old time bellows whistle. Dinner is served. We all rush up to get in line to claim our one slice of pizza and a soft drink. It didn't take long before people were taking two or three slices in a trip, which really caused the line to move at a painfully slow pace. Not to worry, because Rideman and I have come to expect that we will be getting dinner again after SOAR. The bigger problem with being in line all that time was that was when the showed the videos for both Intimidators, Shoot the Rapids, and Wildebeast. You may have thought they would have showed them again as part of the presentations, but no such luck. By the time we got seated they were showing an EntetTRAINment Junction PR video.
So we have our dinner and settle in for the presentations. First up is Gravity Group. This is by far the best presentation of the evening. First up is all about the new roller coaster coming to Quassy in 2011. They discuss at length the trials and tribulations of getting this project off the ground, as we can see some of the material has 2007 dates on it. Its a big case like Waldemeer where the powers that be are doing just about anything they can to scuttle the project. It will look like a kiddie coaster, mainly due to the 35' height limit, but with good use of the terrain they expect a nice airtieme filled ride. They also mentioned the ride will have Timberliners, which was a good seque into the Timberliners part of the presentation. For those of us who went to the Timberliner tour in January, this was a repeat. They pointed out how the cars can steer around curves for a smoother ride,how the seats are actually suspended in the cars for a smoother ride., they talked about the safety bar system and how it will have no seatbelts which they acknowledge is the biggest deterent to getting good dispatch times. Oddly enough they said a train with the same capacity as the Voyages PTC train will actually be shorter than the PTC,which means Holiday World could add even more cars to the trains. They finsihed up by showing the video that is making its way around the off season event circuit. It was a bit humourous as they didn't have sound, so they were trying to ad lib in the soundtrack. The first ever Timberliner axle was given away as a door prize.
Next up was Coaster Dynamix, and we could see a working Griffon model they had on display at the event. We talked about the current product line, and how they will have a $40 shuttle loop coaster this year, as a way of making the product line affordable to a much larger segment of the population. They commented how they are starting to get better exposure at trade shows, even being put next to the Lego booth. They also talked about the statics, which are model coaster trains that are meant to sit on a display shelf.
After them, most of the presentations were done via proxy by the event staff. They talked briefly about Kings Island. Yes we know they are getting Planet Snoopy, but they have no details ready for us. They confirmed April 17 is opening day, and that the early rides on Beast and Diamondback. Of interest to this group are two things. One they are giving away the ACE paver that used to be next to the flagpole. "Paramounts Kings Island salutes ACE" It will be given away through a raffle, so every time you go to Kings Island this year, you can go to guest relations, show your ACE card, and get a ticket in the drawing. So the more visits to Kings Island the better your chances. Of more importance, it was noted that Ride Warriors Weekend is not coming back this year. Instead, the park is going back to holding a seperate event for each club. Seems stupid to me, but that's what they are going for. They claim by April 1, we will know about ACE's event. Lastly, the park donated the 30th anniversary Beast sign, and it was given away as a door prize.
Next was Holiday World, also by proxy. This is when they should have shown theWildebeast video. Instead they gave out some prizes donated by the park and that was it. The ever populat lift hill flags, souvenir cups, and free tickets.
A quick note from the Holiday Drive In, mostly that the ACE free ticket offer is still valid. They mentioned Wake Nation, how it was succesful, how the ACE deal will go on this year, and they are adding a second pond for practicing fundamentals before taking on the real lake.
The last was the Entartrainment Junction presentation, which is mainly a summary of the tour I described above. They did announce the scavenger hunt winner for a jigsaw puzzle from Entertrainment Junction.
After the presentations, we did a group photo by the train station, then we went to the table for more giveaway items. Gravity Group gave out sets of their famous postcards, Holiday World had their brochures and Holiwoo nights flyers. Lastly they set out any of the welcome good packet items that were left over. We gave Rideman time to pack up his stuff and then we headed out to Culvers for dinner.
Just a little bit over a month till Kings Island opening day!
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