Las Vegas is not like anyplace else on earth. The whole city appears to be an all-you-can-eat buffet of extremes, from the outlandish themed hotels to the eyeball-searing plethora of neon lights to the completely insane Cirque du Soleil shows to the chicken and waffles at Hash House a Go-Go. Yes, that thing in the picture below is ONE order of chicken and waffles.
There's no shortage of things to see and do in Vegas and every one of them is over-the-top. Even a relatively mild experience like a slow zip line gets the ante upped by putting you in a flying position and dangling you over a sea of pedestrians with the world's largest big screen TV as a roof.
You can take in some boffo thrill rides at the top of the Stratosphere tower, see amazing shows like "Ka" (and seriously, you should not miss "Ka"), or you can kick back next to the Bellagio and watch the fountains do their thing.
You can even take in the sights from a gondola on the "High Roller" observation wheel. You might remember "High Roller" as the name of a coaster on top of Stratosphere tower, but it's gone now.
There are also some coasters to ride. They're all steel. Now, some of you are happy to hear this because you belong to the group of folks who like steel coasters better than wood coasters "because they're smoother." Welcome to the land of "oh, I don't think so." Vegas doesn't bother with that "smooth" nonsense much. The coasters here are going to batter your body like their casinos batter your wallet. Actually, the coasters are going to batter your wallet as well.
Yes, that's $14 for one ride on the roller coaster at New York New York casino. Of course, you could opt for the $25 package which gets you unlimited rides but unless you enjoy a good pummelling, you might just stick with the single ticket. If you're one of those people who likes steel coasters better than wood coasters "because they're smoother" then you haven't been on a good wooden coaster - and you probably haven't ridden the coasters in Vegas.
Let's start with this one:
I know what you're thinking... yes, it's a fantastic-looking coaster in a prominent spot on the Strip surrounded by a Vegas-ized version of Manhattan, so you simply must ride it. And you should, just because it's there and it's a one-of-a-kind ride. Beyond those reasons, however, you're going to find it difficult to justify that $14 ticket price. Things are not what they seem.
When you enter the New York New York Hotel and Casino, look all the way to the back of the gaming floor for this sign. It depicts an Arrow Dynamics corkscrew coaster called "Manhattan Express" in a part of the casino called "Coney Island Emporium." This is a leftover sign from the coaster's early years when it was actually called "Manhattan Express." It's never been an Arrow corkscrew, though. No telling what that picture is all about. But I digress...
The Coney Island Emporium is now called The Big Apple Coaster and Arcade. The coaster itself may or may not be called The Big Apple. Notice the name on the earlier photo of the ticket price? It just says "Roller Coaster" - and the coaster that used to be called The Big Apple is now called The Roller Coaster at New York New York. Maybe. You'll see signs for both names at various locations around the casino and if you ask the staff, they'll give you both answers. Even the casino's website lists TBA on some pages and TRCaNYNY on others. It's all very confusing. How about we just call it 50 Shades of Togo, or 5ST for short. I'll explain as we go.
As you approach the hotel on the footbridge from the MGM Grand (where you've just seen "Ka" - and if you didn't, then turn around and GO SEE IT), the coaster nerds among you will have a look at this and think, "that's a hyper coaster, that's a Togo brand coaster, and this is going to hurt." You'd be right on all counts, sorta.
Yes, it's a hyper coaster. Sorta. At 203ft tall, it qualifies as a hyper with three feet to spare. However, the drop doesn't go anywhere near the ground. The biggest drop is a paltry 144ft, which only makes it a mid-sized coaster as far as drops go. And when I say it doesn't go anywhere near the ground, I'm not kidding. Have a look at it from the ground.
...and that bit out front behind the Statue of Liberty and all the buildings? It's an illusion as well. The sight lines are carefully controlled so the coaster appears to be dropping and looping from dizzying heights - but the buildings and Lady Liberty are all scaled down for effect. Also, the coaster never drops to the ground at all - it's just a smallish looper stuck up on the roof. Get a view of it from inside the hotel and you'll see.
Yes, it's a Togo brand coaster. Sorta. And yes, it's going to hurt. Sorta. If you got to ride it before August of 2006, then it was absolutely a Togo coaster and you probably vowed never to ride it again. Seriously, it was all kinds of brutal. Every twist and turn brought your head into hard contact with the shoulder restraints, accompanied by a chorus of NSFW comments from the riders. Those torture trains were replaced in 2006 by new, much-more-comfy trains by Premier Rides, which means that even though there's Togo track, you aren't going to get the whole Togo coaster experience. This is a good thing. The end result is that it's only half as brutal as before. This is the nicest thing I can say about it, so I'll stop there. Still, it's an iconic part of Vegas, it's a one-of-a-kind ride, and it was the first-ever coaster to do a twisting dive loop. That's the thing in the next photo.
You start right-side-up, then you twist over to upside-down and drop out of it in a half loop. Pretty nifty, yeah? Luckily, there's now another coaster in Vegas that pulls that maneuver without beating you senseless in the process. Follow me over to the other end of town to Circus Circus casino.
See that bit at the top of the video screen? Yep. That's El Loco at the Adventuredome at the back of the casino. It's one of three coasters in the dome, but if you're adult-sized, you can only ride two of them.
Miner Mike is the coaster you can't ride. They have a strict height limit and if you're too tall, you're not going to get to ride it. I'm a credit whore with no shame, so you better believe I begged for an exception to the rule, but it was no use. But hey, we're here to get us some tasty twisting dive loops without head banging, though, right?
Oh hell yes. I'll admit that hearing about the addition of an S&S "El Loco" coaster to the Adventuredome wasn't much of a thrill for me. I'd been on the only other El Loco in North America, a torturous contraption called "Steel Hawg" at Indiana Beach, and I'm not a fan of it at all. The layout is interesting but the shoulder restraints try to kill you during the ride. I remember getting off Steel Hawg thinking that it could be really good if it lost those shoulder bars... Imagine my delight, then, when I rolled up on El Loco at Adventuredome and noticed that there are no shoulder restraints at all.
Just look at that glorious mess of track. Tight turns. Vertical drop. Outside-banked curves. Two twisting dive loops (the second one isn't visible in this photo). These are all going to be done with just a lap bar.
The lift hill is ridiculously fast and ends in a super-tight "wild mouse" style turnaround, followed by a vertical plunge. If you've read the article on Iron Shark, then you already have some idea of what to expect here. The drop isn't quite as steep as that one's, but it will get your attention in the same way. A rise leads to another hairpin turn, this one banked outward. With only a lap bar, your sense of vulnerability here is multiplied exponentially.
The rest of the layout is dizzying fun, all twists and loops and turns, all of them done in complete comfort without a single moment of head banging. It's a beautiful thing. But we're not done here. Canyon Blaster, Adventuredome's original coaster, is right next to El Loco.
Why name it "Canyon Blaster?" Well, it helps to know that Adventuredome was originally called Grand Slam Canyon. Not sure why they changed the name, but no matter. What does matter is that this pepto-pink Arrow double-loop corkscrew coaster is going to be way better than you're expecting it to be.
I know what you're thinking... "but this has shoulder bars. You hate shoulder bars."
I don't hate shoulder bars. I hate when I get brutalized by shoulder bars. If the bars don't beat me to a pulp during the ride, I'm fine with them. Really. And believe it or not, this 1993 Arrow coaster is surprisingly smooth. That's not to say that it's as smooth as El Loco, but it's far smoother than nearly any other Arrow looper. In fact, I can only think of one that's smoother than this one, and you have to go all the way to Canada to ride it. This one even has some airtime(!)
There. Right there on that hill, the whole front end of the train gets a tasty jolt of airtime. It's just one of the little surprises this coaster has in store.
The fake mountain the coaster weaves around offers its own surprises in the form of blind corners. (I should note: on-ride photos in this article were taken with permission. If a park or ride has a "no cameras" policy, obey it. Period.)
Even the drop is hidden from most of the park, tucked away in a fake canyon. Oh, and just for grins, let's throw in a few dark tunnels at the end of the ride.
Perhaps it's the coaster's setting, nestled in and around other rides and fake rocks with tight clearances, but Canyon Blaster feels like one of the faster Arrow four-loopers. It's giddy fun, it's not too painful to ride, and it doesn't even have a single Toomer tank. I suppose I should explain that term...
Ron Toomer was a mechanical engineer who helped design the heat shields for the Apollo space capsule - oh, and he designed 93 roller coasters, including the first coaster with a corkscrew loop, the first coasters with two, three, four, five, six, and seven inversions, the first mine train coaster, the first coaster with interlocking loops, and the first hyper coaster. In the world of coaster enthusiasts, dude was a rock star. That said, it's true that his designs aren't always remembered as the best versions of a particular thing, but you can't say that they weren't the first. His designs laid the groundwork upon which nearly every steel coaster in the world today is built.
That brings us to "Toomer tanks." Ron's designs are often a collection of beautifully-engineered elements scattered through the coaster's layout. The elements themselves are nice and smooth, but the transitions from one to the next are sometimes brutal. These little jolts are affectionately known as "Toomer tanks" and you either love them or hate them. I fall into the former category, although I used to belong to the latter. These days, those wallops give me the giggles and I eagerly look forward to them. Figuring out how to ride an Arrow coaster without getting tanked is as challenging as the most demanding video game and lots more exciting. And if you loves you some Toomer tanks, you needs to get yo-self about an hour south of Vegas, down to the state line. Behold.
Look at this beauty! Holy cow, it's the very definition of clunky, jerky, Arrow-designed awesomeness. The trains are oversized, the centre of gravity is too high, the turns are going to be vicious, and those bucket seats are going to clock you in the ribs, you just know it. But you don't ride Desperado in spite of all those things, you ride it because of those things. This is the crown jewel of bent-coat-hanger design. (Coaster nerds know what that means. If you don't, then Google or search YouTube for "toomer coat hangar" and you'll see.)
Buffalo Bill's casino has done the opposite of New York New York casino. While NYNY attempts to make their coaster look bigger than it is by scaling down Manhattan's skyline, Buffalo Bill's makes Desperado look smaller by scaling up their hotel and placing the tallest parts of the coaster far toward the back, so you never get to stand close enough to appreciate its 20-story height. In fact, most of the coaster doesn't come into view at all until the last third of the ride, which wraps around the front of the casino.
So you go into the casino, find the ticket booth, and walk up the ramp to the station. Contrary to nearly every other coaster on earth, you do not want to see the station like this:
Nope. An empty station is a very bad thing. You see, due to frequent high winds in the desert, Desperado requires at least ten riders on the train before it can be dispatched. So if you see an empty station, it doesn't mean "woo hoo, I'm going to get tons of rides!" but instead it means, "I guess I'll sit here for a half hour or so until nine more people show up." I might never say this about any other ride, but I'll say it here: visit on a busy day and you'll get more rides. Weird, huh? Anyway... when it finally gets enough people and you roll out of the station, you'll head up through the roof and into the blinding sun. As you climb, fellow riders are going to finally get a handle on just how big this thing is. Once at the top, everything gets nuts.
Yeah, baby, that's a nice drop there. It's reminiscent of Cedar Point's "Magnum XL-200" (also a Toomer design) except that it tosses in a tunnel at the bottom of the first drop just to mess with your head a little. From there, you rocket into an upward turn that's a glorious series of Toomer tanks done at blinding speed. Ribs, meet car. For an extra treat, sit near the back and watch the heads of the riders in the cars ahead of you. Yep, that'll let you know where the tanks are so you can prepare. Better yet, forego the usual "hands in the air" routine and instead grab the bar in front of you and use it to pull your back away from the seat. You'll thank me for that advice, I promise.
The drop and turn that follows this craziness is one of the most oddly-designed sections of coaster track I've ever ridden. By all indications, it should be smooth as glass and it should flow like melted butter. It does none of those things, not even close, and it makes me giggle uncontrollably. It's just so deliciously wrong in every possible way. Have a look at it from above, courtesy of Google Earth - look at the smooth, curvaceous, paisley-shaped design and then explain to me why it would toss you around in the train like a rag doll. It shouldn't. But it does. And it makes me laugh every time.
After that come some Magnum-esque hills with nice pops of airtime at the top. Again, you should go on a busy day... you get more airtime when the train is full.
A swing around the front of the casino leads to an upward helix partially enclosed in a tunnel over the log flume.
Then it's back inside to unload and do it again. Desperado might be an hour's drive off the Vegas strip, but it's worth it. Check the casino's website first, though, as the coaster has some odd operating hours.
So get yourself to Vegas, see some shows, ride some coasters, drive down to the state line and rack up some Toomer tanks, have some good food, watch the dancing fountains, and... and... oh yeah, I've heard you can gamble there, too.