Calgary is a city of just over a million people in southern Alberta. It sits at the intersection of the Bow and Elbow rivers, both of which run through the city.
Calgary, due to having exactly zero custom-designed coasters and only one adult-sized production model coaster, is often overlooked by enthusiasts who head straight for Edmonton or Vancouver when in western Canada. If time is limited, who could blame them? But if you expand your thrill-seeking to look beyond just theme parks or traditional coasters, you can discover some real gems in Stampede City, and I'm not just talking about the coaster or two that shows up at the Calgary Stampede midway every year.
But let's talk about this coaster first. It's at Calaway Park just outside the city on the Trans-Canada Highway. It's called "The Vortex" and it's an early model (1982) Arrow corkscrew. It's a rare bird for a couple of reasons: first, it's one of the few models that was installed brand new and is still in the original spot. These things have a tendency to be sold and moved from park to park, but this one is original to Calaway. Second, and possibly because of the former reason, it rides like a dream.
Yeah, I said it. It's a good ride. I'll be the first to admit that when I noticed that Calaway gives you two complete back-to-back circuits on the coaster, I was rather dreading the experience. In most cases, an Arrow Corkscrew is a once-and-done creho coaster: ride it, tick it off your list, move on. In most cases, as you pull into the station, the last thing on earth you'd want is a second time around.
But The Vortex is smooth, comfortable, and in spite of my initial dreading of that second trip around, I found myself actually queueing up for several more of those two-fers. If you're a fan of classic Arrow coasters (and these folks actually do exist, I've met a few!) then Calaway Park should be on your must-visit list. Park GM Bob Williams explained to me that his maintenance department treats The Vortex like their baby - and it shows. After all, this is their signature attraction... or it was. Now they've got this:
Timber Falls is a new log flume ride and is the first themed attraction at Calaway. In addition to logging shacks and sawmills that you float through during the ride, the queue is an educational trip through the logging industry. Careful, you might just learn something while you queue! The ride itself is actually quite good, sporting some sections of rapids between the traditional plunges. There's also a section of coin-operated water cannons providing non-riders with the opportunity to soak the riders who didn't get wet enough on the big drop.
Now... it's time to talk about the creho factor: have a close look just to the left of that "Closed Down 1990" sign. Zoom in if you must. YES. The first drop is on rails and leads directly into a tracked, waterless second hill that travels uphill and down with wheeled cars. So - is this a standard flume or is it a water coaster? While you ponder that, I should mention that Calaway is also home to a Fiesta Express kiddie coaster called "Mini Express"
...as well as a classic Schwarzkopf brand Enterprise wheel called "Storm." Now, I love Enterprise rides and was thrilled to find this here - and even more thrilled to discover that it hasn't been toned down in the least.
Far from it, actually. This thing runs in 'psycho mode' or something, pulling crazy G-forces by the time it goes full vertical. Love it! The rest of the park is mostly geared toward smaller kids, but it's very clean, the employees are friendly, the parking is free, and the pizza restaurant serves beer, so when you need a break from the rugrat swarm, there's that. It's well worth a visit, not just for the two (three?) credits, but for the well-maintained classic corkscrew and the bonkers Enterprise ride.
If you appreciate the classics, though, you can't miss a stop at Heritage Park. With no coasters at all, many enthusiasts don't even know this place exists since it isn't listed on any of the usual coaster-finding sites - and that's a tragedy. I stopped by on a curiosity bender one day because their website said they had a few midway rides. I was simply not prepared for what I found.
An antique car museum kicks things off right at the front gate and it's a stunner. Most everything is impeccably restored and immaculately maintained, a theme that runs throughout the entire park. Moving past this into the main park, you find one of the train depots. There are three in the park, all moved in from their original locations around Canada, all circa early 1900s. A vintage steam locomotive travels the perimeter of the park. It's a beauty.
The park itself is classified as a "Living History Museum" - the whole thing looks like a town, complete with employees in period costume, a working blacksmith shop, antique and horse-drawn vehicles servicing the town, and most of the buildings are authentic, donated to the park and moved in. The rest are recreations, but good enough that you won't be able to tell the difference.
There's an old paddlewheel boat, a railroad museum with some incredible stuff, a roundhouse with a working turntable, and at one end of a road... a fairgrounds.
You want classic, historic, well-maintained rides? This is heaven. There are a pair of Eli Bridge wheels, one "big" and one miniature. The seats are polished hardwood, the controls are manual, and the experience is old-school to the extreme.
But that's not the best thing. Next to it is a Whip - not only is it the last remaining portable model, but it practically looks brand new. As Whips go, this one is fairly slow and relatively small, but who cares? Just look at it!
That level of "just like new" carries on to the Herschell-Spillman brand Carousel, circa 1904, with rare "rocker" horses on the inner track and hand-painted animals and center panels. It's gorgeous.
There's a Chair-o-plane (called "Dangler Swings") just across the railroad tracks with more hand-painted center panels and wood chairs....
...but the show-stopper in this Living Museum is hidden under that teal and white canopy just to the right. That, folks, is one of just two remaining Caterpillar rides in the world.
It's a simple ride, basically a circular train of cars on an undulating track. It's the basis of lots of different modern midway rides, but the Caterpillar gets its name from that canopy seen along the edge. When the ride reaches full speed, the canopy raises and covers the whole thing, making it look like a giant, endless caterpillar. Heritage Park's ride was one of the first to be built (1920s) and it's an absolute stunner.
It's almost enough to bring a preservationist like myself to tears. Even the green canopy is original, seen below as it begins to cover the cars, operated by manual controls at the hands of a costumed ride operator.
Heritage Park is well worth a day's visit, just for the Caterpillar ride alone. If you need some adrenaline, though, you can head downtown to the Calgary Tower.
It boasts the world's highest observation deck with a full 360-degree view... but the adrenaline comes via that bit sticking out of the side:
That bit has a glass floor... and it's terrifying.
While you're waiting for your heart to restart, you can head for Canada Olympic Park. It's the site of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, but there's stuff to do in the summer, too. There's Skyline Luge, which is basically Mario Kart run on gravity rather than motors.
Calgary's is the world's longest ride of this type at 1.8km and has plenty of twists and turns.
There's also a short, but ridiculously fast zip line that runs from the top of the biggest ski jump tower. While the 500m (1640ft) length isn't enough to warrant "must-do" status, the vertical distance is well over 300ft. It's steep.
That gets you to an insane speed of 87mph until you deploy your drag chute to slow you down before you get to the end. It's a serious rush.
But all of that pales in comparison to the bobsled. This is the infamous run that took out the Jamaican bobsled team in 1988, the subject of the film "Cool Runnings" (which was partially filmed here).
While a ride on the traditional bobs in the winter season is an absolute blast, insanely intense, and physically demanding in ways you can't even imagine, it isn't something I'd recommend to everyone, mainly because of that "physically demanding" bit. Six Gs on rough ice is brutal on your body and it's enough to sap the fun out of the experience if you aren't up to it. Canada Olympic Park offers a summer version, though, which is far more comfortable, a bit slower, doable by most anyone, and... and.... it might just count as a coaster.
I know, I know... but hear me out. Have a look at that sled. It runs on wheels. It has guide wheels on the side of the nose, much like a side-friction coaster. It rolls down a trough track solely on gravity, just like bobsled coasters in theme parks around the world... like this one at Six Flags Over Texas:
Yes, there is an employee who rides in the car with you to operate the brakes, but this is no different than the old woodies with the brakeman on board, like those still in operation in Europe. In fact, for every reason I can think of why you shouldn't count this as a coaster, there is a "real" coaster that defies that reasoning. You decide, it's your list.
Coaster credit or not, the ride is awesome. While the speeds attained on wheels (around 50mph or so) are far slower than the winter version (which make it down the course in about a minute and reach speeds of 75mph), compared to theme park bobsled coasters, this thing is hauling serious ass.
The highlight is the Kreisel turn (above), a 270 degree beast that wiped the Jamaican team in 1988. It's a riot of positive G-forces and tunnel vision ("graying out") is nearly guaranteed in the winter. The park says that they've never had a public sled crash, but that's little comfort when you're hurtling down the long straightaway that leads into the Kreisel and attain the fastest speed of the whole course (below).
When you finally reach the end, you'll have sped through 14 turns and your heart will be racing with adrenaline. Whether or not you count it as a coaster credit, it's well worth doing.
So Calgary often gets passed up on coaster enthusiasts' trips to the Great White North because it lacks a signature coaster to draw in the crowds. Hopefully, that will change at some point in the future (wouldn't a family-sized woodie like Wooden Warrior be great for Calaway Park?). Until then, the city's historic, scenic, and adrenaline-based attractions are filling the bill nicely.