Jazzland. It seemed like such a good idea. A city the size of New Orleans needs a theme park. Locals fondly remembered Ponchartrain Beach and the wooden Zephyr coaster and longed for those days to return. How could it go wrong?
Location, location, location. Ponchartrain Beach was accessible to the city. Jazzland was outside of town, beyond the limits of what one might call a "cheap cab ride." Getting there was a real problem for many of the locals, and tourists? Most tourists fly in and stay in the French Quarter, never getting a rental car. Why would they? New Orleans is a walking town. You couldn't walk to Jazzland. Out of sight, out of mind. Also, there was little or no shade at the park and no water park attached. The flume ride was your only hope of beating the heat. Even folks who made it to the park didn't stay long in that heat.
That's a real shame, too, because the park did a lot of things right. It celebrated the city's unique history and culture. It brought in actual restaurants from the city rather than relying on the standard "park fare" of chicken strips and burgers. I mean, when was the last time you got authentic gumbo at a theme park? Not just a park-version, either, but freakin' Rita's Creole Kitchen gumbo! The ride names reflected the culture as well, with a Ferris wheel called "The Big Easy"...
and they had a spinning ride with cars shaped like airboats and themed to a "swamp rescue" and a mouse coaster themed not to mice, but to muskrats. (I guess naming the coaster after nutria would've been a bit over-the-top)
The park just wasn't making money, though. It seemed that it might not last more than a couple of years, in fact. That's when Six Flags swooped in and bought the lease, renaming it from "Jazzland" to "Six Flags New Orleans."
Mixed blessing, for sure. On the one hand, if becoming a Six Flags chain park meant that the place wouldn't close, then it's hard to argue that this was a bad thing. On the other hand, much of the charm of Jazzland and its localized flavor gave way to Six Flags corporate theming. To their credit, Six Flags did generally leave in place the original stuff and (mostly) kept those names. However, all the new attractions that got brought in were themed around Looney Tunes and Super Heroes.
Yes, in New Orleans.
So you could be walking along watching some jazz musicians do a mock New Orleans style funeral procession or sitting on the grass taking in a Cajun-Creole band in a gazebo while you enjoy some étouffée... and then up walks Bugs Bunny.
And right down the path from a couple of coasters called "Zydeco Scream" and "Muskrat Scrambler" you have a coaster called "Batman: the Ride." Yeah, because nothing - and I mean nothing says "authentic flavor of New Orleans" like freaking Batman. (Would someone please make an official sarcasm font? I don't want anyone to think I was serious with that last sentence.)
Still... if it keeps the park open, then so be it. Well, until Hurricane Katrina buried the whole place under seven feet of swamp water, anyway. Just five years after Jazzland opened, Katrina shut it down for good. In the years since, the prospect of the property ever re-opening looks bleak because reasons. I could spend the next twenty pages detailing that hot mess, but there are numerous other sites that have already done it. If you want to wallow in politics, underhanded deals, sneaky goings-on, and the like, you can find plenty of it related to the years of red tape and the property formerly known as Jazzland. This article isn't about that, though. This article is about Jazzland's tribute to Ponchartrain Beach's old wooden Zephyr coaster. They called it "Mega Zeph."
The year 2000 was a watershed year. It was the start of the "new millennium" (actually, it wasn't - it was the end of the previous one, but that's an argument for another time), we'd somehow avoided the apocalypse that was supposed to happen with Y2K, and the world of coasters was all about record-shattering. Cedar Point opened the world's tallest coaster and called it "Millennium Force." Then just a few weeks later, an even taller one opened in Japan called "Steel Dragon 2000." On the wooden coaster front, Kings Island opened the tallest woodie in the world with "Son of Beast" - which was also the only wood coaster at the time to go upside-down. For a coaster-loving trip planner like myself, it meant that I was going to have to log a lot of miles on my two-week vacation if I wanted to hit the biggies. I lived in Houston at the time and managed to get Son of Beast, Millennium Force, Villain at Geauga Lake, and even hit some other new-to-me parks like Visionland in Alabama all in one whirlwind two-week road trip. With such a packed schedule, I figured that Jazzland would have to wait until a long weekend or something. After all, there was nothing much there to warrant cramming it into an already-intense trip. A standard mouse, a standard boomerang, a standard "roller skater" kiddie coaster, and a smallish woodie. The woodie was of interest, of course, but with all the record-breakers that year, a coaster that barely cracked the 100ft height marker was hardly noteworthy. It could wait, I thought. I'd come back another time.
Except that's not what happened. Going from Visionland back to Houston meant driving right by the park. Plus, I got a really early start that day and I was a good two hours ahead of schedule. I swung around and looked at the coaster: the train was only half-full(!) That meant that the park wasn't crowded and I could easily check off all the coaster credits in a short time, maybe ride the woodie an extra time or two, then hit the road and still be home at the planned hour. Woo hoo!
Fantastic! I got all three standard production model coasters within 30 minutes of arriving at the park and it wasn't even noon yet! Time to hit the woodie. After all the towering coaster structures I'd seen on the trip so far, po' lil' Mega Zeph seemed rather puny.
I wondered if this, too, would be a once and done. Ok, twice and done: once in the front, once in the back. I hopped aboard. The first thing I noticed: G-trains. Dammit. Gerstlauer company made lots of rolling stock for coasters that year and I had just had my first experience with them on Villain at Geauga Lake this same trip. While they tracked really well without much shuffle, they were hugely uncomfortable to ride in and the U-shaped leg staples (I can't even call them 'lap bars') were brutal on turns as your thighs made contact with the sides of the 'U'. Hard. With no padding. Sigh. This might be a once-and-done, after all. Up the lift hill we go.
I'm just going to apologize right away for the substandard photos taken from the ride itself. In those days I had a crap camera that saved photos onto a built-in 3.5" floppy disc drive. Needless to say, when your storage media only holds 1.44MB, you get crappy resolution. By the time I got back to the park a couple years later with a better camera, Jazzland had become Six Flags and had adopted a strict no-camera policy on the ride, so the crappy POV photos from the opening season are all I have.
Anyway, at the top of the lift, you got a nice look at the drop. A good drop, but not great.
It did manage to build up some speed, which would be needed. Right after the first drop, the layout tossed in a high, swooping circular turnaround. Looking at it from the ground, I expected the trains to just barely make it over the hump and meander around the swoop turn. At least, that's what I expected.
And that's the moment where Mega Zeph put one hand on her hip, waggled a finger in my face, and said, "bitch, you don't know me!" The train didn't just barely crest that next hill, it flew over it. Hello, ejector airtime. Hello, G-trains killing my thighs. I don't remember what flew out of my pie hole at that moment, but I'm pretty sure they heard it over in the French Quarter. Oh, and that "meander around the turn" thing didn't happen, either. Lateral-city. My thighs were aching already from those damn leg staples on those damn trains, but who cares at this point? This thing was hauling serious butt around this turn! That set things up for the drop. You know, that thing there after the turn that doesn't look like much.
Yeah, I know. It doesn't look like anything. But it was. It was. This will go down in my book as the Best Second Drop of Any Wood Coaster, Ever. That ho-hum first drop was just to give you a false sense of security before the second drop changed your life. If you were in the back seat, you swore to everything that was holy that you were going to be catapulted into the Atchafalaya Swamp, even though it was miles away. Oh, I should also mention that because the track dips beneath the track ahead of it, you couldn't see what was coming next.
The next thing that happens after you scoot under that structure is something so evil, so insane, so sadistic that I still can't believe that someone actually built it. Sadly, there is no way that a photo is going to do it justice. But let me put one up, let you be underwhelmed, and then try to describe what the picture can't show, which was basically Pure Evil reimagined as coaster track.
OK, I know you don't get it, so let's dissect this thing: Firstly, you have to understand that the train has just raced down a 10-story drop with a pretty good running start, so this was one of the fastest parts of the entire layout. Now, look at that hill. It's short. It's basically a bunny hop. You know what you get on a speedy bunny hop? Right! Airtime. So now we have super-speedy airtime. Why is that evil? The bunny hop had a turn in it. Yes, I know it's hard to see, but there's about a 30-degree dogleg to the right on that thing. Guess what else? It's not banked. Well, maybe a little, but not much. Certainly not like you'd expect for a 30-degree turn at this speed. So what happened is this: You screamed down the drop, passed under the structure, then you were staring head-on into this insane bunny hop with an unbanked turn. Basically, it's ejector air, the car careened to the right while you're in the air, then it yanked you back down into the seat at an angle, all while going damn near sixty mph. Did you notice that there are no hands up on any of the people in that photo? (Yeah, I know. It's hard to tell.) Well, I have to give Six Flags credit again, bless their lil' hearts... they didn't change that hill when they took over the park.
I know, right? I couldn't believe it, either. But they didn't. The Hill from Hell, the Sucker Punch, the Evil Bunny, whatever you want to call it, remained intact. The pic below is from the days after the Six Flags acquisition. Notice there are no hands up on this train, either.
At this point, nobody in the train knew what dafuq just happened. We all needed a bit of a break to sort it out. Too bad, kiddies! How about a nice double-up? Yeah, I know - your thighs are already sore from the airtime, but here's two more shots of ejector air!
And then a reprieve. A long, slow, flat turn just above the station. While some folks like their rides all-out intense without any slow spots in them, I appreciated the throwback to the old-school pacing of "crazy, slow, crazy, slow." Not only that, but it gave you a chance to check out where you've been (that Evil Bunny is in the center of the shot above). But where are we going? The track dives back into the structure again after this turn, so who knows?
The drop off the slow turn was much like the first drop - built to gather speed, even if the drop itself isn't particularly intense. But wait... another double-up? Thighs, meet bar, two more times. Then a drop into the structure with a little jog to the left. Then, while you were hidden away at ground level, you got some trick-track: a small flat section of track, banked left and right in quick succession to throw you side-to-side in the car for no reason other than to remind you that you're not in control here. Then came the Swamp Turn.
It was a swoopy turn much like that first one. It was super-fast, also like that first one. It was chock full of laterals, just like that first one. It was sitting mostly over swamp water, not like that first one, but you didn't really notice it, so maybe it was like the first one after all. Except this one went the opposite direction. Whatever. The main thing is that you screamed around it and got a bit of floater airtime as you exited, which set you up for Pure Evil: the Sequel.
Look at that lower section of bunny hops there in the photo above. Just look at it! You can practically see the thigh-bruising airtime all over that thing. There's a small hill (right side of pic), then another double-up (WTF? That's THREE double-ups in this ride!), then another bunny hop. All taken at a speed that was just nucking futz. And all of this was preceded by a medium-sized hill that started the ball rolling.
Oh, you got ejector air on this hill, too. That was just the warm-up, though. After that, it was just one perfectly-executed moment of ejector airtime after another. This section of track must've been the inspiration for Skyrush at Hersheypark. It just launched you into the lap bar and pinned you there mercilessly all the way over the hill, then slammed you back into the seat only to whisper in your ear, "yeah, you liked that, dincha?" Then it gave you another one. And another. You had no reprieve, no escape, and no 'safe word.' Just ride it out, baby. Through the blur, you could almost make out the loading station getting closer. But wait... we're not done yet.
Just when you thought it was over, Mega Zeph bitch-slapped you with an upward helix that wasn't banked very much and that was banked less and less as it went. You know, just in case your thighs weren't already bruised enough by those damned leg staples in those damned G-trains. You and your sweaty riding partner got really cozy right about then. (OF COURSE your riding partner was sweaty. This is New Orleans in the summertime and there was no shade in this park.) Out of the helix and into the brake run. You could still hear the upstops spinning like mad under your feet, which they continued to do all the way back into the station. Riders either applauded, laughed, or sat in stunned silence as the train rolled back in for another group of victims.
I shouldn't even need to mention at this point that the idea of "once and done" or even "twice and done" on Mega Zeph was tossed right out the window. Instantly. I vaguely remember thinking "holy cow, I was not expecting that" followed by "laissez les bons temps rouler!" and a run around to get back on. Gone was the idea of getting home at a decent hour. Ride after ride, I kept thinking, "I'm still a seven hour drive from home and I have to work tomorrow.... what the hell, just ten or twenty more rides won't hurt!"
From that moment, I knew that I had a new favorite coaster. Mega Zeph had everything I wanted in a wood coaster: speedy drops, lots of airtime, tons of laterals, trick-track, three double-ups, fast/slow/fast pacing, and the best example of out-of-control sensations anywhere on earth. Even after dozens of rides, I was still never able to fully convince myself that this ride would make it back to the station with me still in the car. I've heard that she had her sluggish days from time to time, but I apparently never visited on any of those days. Every time I rode this thing, it kicked my butt. Every. Single. Time.
Fast-forward to present day. The bad news is that the coaster is still closed. The good news is that it's still standing, it has been inspected, and it has been deemed salvageable. There are hopes of re-opening the park as of this writing, but because I don't want to jinx anything, I'm not going to place any bets. Whether Mega Zeph gets re-opened as part of a reborn Jazzland Park where it sits now, or whether some other park buys it and sets it up in their own location, I really don't care - just so someone, somewhere saves this thing. In a world where "look at our new coaster" usually means "look at the coaster we just installed, which is an exact copy of the same coaster we installed in several of our other parks" it would be a really good move to save a one-of-a-kind design with a proven track record. Oh, and since those original, awful, leg-bruising G-trains are toast, it would mean that it would open with brand new rolling stock. Trust me on this, if you combine this insane track layout with comfortable trains, you just got yourself a world-class, top-tier coaster. Let the good times roll, indeed.