After several days of relatively conventional tourism on our own it was time to turn our attention to the roller coasters of Scandinavia with the American Coaster Enthusiasts tour. We'd begin with Helsinki's own city amusement park, Linnanmäki. Since it was nearby we didn't have a crazily early departure time as we would on some other days. Nevertheless I got up at 6 to give us plenty of time to grab breakfast and make sure we were packed up, since we'd be changing hotels for the first time. In the end, we had more time than we needed, and had a few minutes to relax in our room before having to come back down to the bus.
We took the time in our room to check the weather but found the Finnish weather channels confusing. There were a lot of icons on the screen that didn't make sense to us. At one point they showed what appeared to be webcam shots of various roads (almost all empty) to show what the weather was like there. Another broadcast was more confusing yet. It showed bar and line graphs for a lot of different cities in succession, but without indicating what the graphs represented. I thought one might be the temperature and one the precipitation forecast, but the temperature didn't seem to follow the curve I'd expect over the course of the day.
We had to be down at our coaches by 9. There were three coaches, each named after a Scandinavian country in its native language. Ours was "Norge", which was odd since Norway was the country we'd spend by far the least time in. Denmark got the short shrift; no coach was named after it though we'd visit many parks there. I found our coach superior, roomier and more comfortable, to the ones we'd had on our trip through Spain. On the other hand I noticed that the Norge coach was the biggest of the three, so perhaps the others were not as nice.
In theory we were supposed to leave promptly at 9, but as would often be the case during the trip, somebody would come down right at the departure time, which inevitably led to some delays. We never got into any serious trouble due to this, but I wished some of the perennial latecomers had been more prompt. On this day the last person on the bus got some sarcastic applause, but this didn't really change anybody's habits.
It didn't much matter this day as we were visiting Helsinki's own city park, Linnanmäki. We arrived well before the park was due to open for the public, for an early riding session on their Vuoristorata roller coaster, a rare Scenic Railway style of wood coaster. Scenic Railways were one of the very first types of coaster built, very rare these days (none exist in North America at all). Vuoristorata was just having its 60th anniversary that year (commemorated by some decorations in the station and on one of the trains) and yet it was one of the last ever built.
One of the reasons for their rarity is that their braking mechanism is on the cars, not on the track, meaning that a brakeman has to ride on each circuit to control it. It's perhaps even a bit dangerous because they use a mechanism to strap him in (I think in the distant past they had no restraint at all). Though this is not the most efficient form of operation, Linnanmäki obviously takes pride in their brakemen, posting pictures of all of them on the queue ramp. Some came in pairs, like "Teemu" and "Teemu Jr.". I wasn't sure if they were of the same family or just the senior and junior operators of the same name. Unlike in 2004, there were no female operators (then there was one). We saw that one of the operators had a cowbell on his shirt, and when we inquired, found it indicated he was the least senior operator.
Vuoristorata isn't particularly thrilling, but I find it a joy to ride. The drops are mild but fun, particularly a couple with a small bump in the track leading to a slight "double dip" effect. The layout is pretty simple, with straight stretches of drops and hills interrupted by turns, but it does what it does well. There are little signal lights at various points on the track so the operators can avoid collisions when more than one train is operating (as they would do during the day). Even the greasy and resinous smell of the ride is unique. I was able to photograph and film while riding, something I wouldn't be able or even try to do for most of the rest of the trip.
In addition to our riding time, they gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the coaster. We got to take pictures from within its structure, and also got to see the inside of the engine room. Janna called this "the geekiest thing I've ever done". The most interesting piece of information we got from the park personnel during this tour was that the coaster was powered by a little wind turbine; it needed no other source of power.
Seemingly all too soon, our special ride time was over and the general public was admitted to the park. However, this did mean the rest of the attractions would open, so we began to wander through the remainder of the park. On our 2004 trip I'd liked Linnanmäki well enough, but hadn't considered it "special" in the way that some of the other parks later in the trip were. This time, my view was more favorable. I got a better sense of the way the park was landscaped and decorated, even from the first moments after we left the Vuoristorata area, when I saw a fountain with a cute sculpture of a squirrel and giant metal pine cones about it. Later we'd see other sculptures, and from our photos I see there were some I didn't even notice. A cute touch was that there were figures supporting the monorail track that looked just like statues outside the Helsinki railway station.
Another interesting touch that we encountered early on was a pink phone booth-like building. It looked unremarkable from the outside, and we were a bit puzzled as to why such a thing should be at an amusement park. When Janna opened it to look in she was surprised to hear the sound of girls giggling, kissing noises, and the words "Pussy, pussy". We assumed that they were not trying to be obscene, but that the words meant "kiss kiss" in Finnish instead. Later we'd see another similar booth with a tree painted on the outside; I didn't step in so I don't really know what went on in there.
Meanwhile, it was time to ride some of the other coasters. Closest to where we were was Ukko, which was new since 2004, so I was particularly interested in it as a new "credit" to add to my lifetime coaster list. It wasn't entirely new to me though, as it was a variety I'd ridden before, identical to Sky Wheel in Skyline Park in Germany and very similar to Abismo in Madrid. The profile is of a complete loop of track, with a weird twist at the top. The cars are pulled vertically upward, begin to curl over upside down, then twist through one revolution before falling down the other side of the loop. They then rock back and forth once before settling at the bottom again.
It's a rather bizarre coaster, which perhaps is what inspired the psychedelic theming seen in the queue. Unfortunately, as odd as it is, it's not very fun. The restraint was very tight (much more so than I remembered from Spain or Germany), which made it a relief just get off when the ride was over. Nobody was interested in riding it again.
Nearby was another coaster oddity called Kirnu. It also matched one we'd ridden in Spain, Inferno. Its vertical layout looked something like a maze, with the first drop wrapping entirely under itself. The cars also could freely spin and riders could face either forward or backward (initially; during the ride the flipping randomized this somewhat). I had liked Inferno quite a bit so I expected to like Kirnu too, and did. I was surprised to learn that Chris hadn't liked Inferno, and it turned out he didn't like Kirnu any better.
Next we went to a more standard coaster attraction, an indoor space-themed ride called Linnunrata. Unlike Ukko and Kirnu, I'd ridden it in 2004, but my memories of it were not very vivid. What came to mind most quickly when I thought of Linnunrata was the giant cylindrical brick building it was housed in (with dense foliage growing on the roof, as we could later see from the observation tower). I didn't even remember the space theming of the queue very well, but this is no surprise, as it was fairly generic--metal walkways passing through hallways tricked out to look like something from Star Wars. I liked some of the signs, including one addressing passengers as "junior space rangers" and another marking an employees-only door as "airless void, no entry".
The ride itself isn't all that memorable anyway, just a mild trip whose biggest thrill is that it's in the dark. I liked the way the lights flickered when we were dispatched, and the glow-in-the-dark stars and galaxies on the ceiling brought back memories of when I was a kid, putting such stickers on my wall.
The remaining coasters were arranged along the back edge of the park. We walked down a ramp from the Linnunrata exit platform that looked somewhat like a lover's lane, got our bearings, and headed toward the first of them. However, we had a few diversions along the way. The first was a smoke break for Chris and Mike. Most of the Scandinavian parks allowed smoking only in designated areas so they would often stop when we encountered one. During this break we got to see the amusing sight of the president of ACE riding a kiddie pony ride nearby.
Chris and Mike delayed our coaster riding a bit more, as they wanted to ride a spinning ride called Kieppi. It was the first of many crazy flat rides we'd encounter on the trip that weren't to be found in the US. Most of them combined complex spinning and flipping effects for complete disorientation. I was conflicted about most such rides. On the one hand, I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to ride anything unique, but on the other, spinning rides are much more liable to give me motion sickness than coasters. In this case I didn't have to worry; I'd already ridden Kieppi in 2004 and didn't feel I had to again. In the end Mike seemed to like it, but Chris definitely did not.
I did not begrudge Chris and Mike the time spent doing other things than riding coasters, because I was enjoying just being in the park. However, we did have coasters to ride, and after their Kieppi experience we got right down to it, polishing them all off in sequence.
First was Salama, a coaster with spinning cars and a free-form layout, located almost directly above the park's rapids ride. It seemed to have mythological theming, but I couldn't tell quite what it was about; in the queue we saw representations of a giant bird, a sea monster, and a guy roping a horse, from which it was hard to guess what was going on. I enjoyed the ride itself well enough though it wasn't particularly memorable. The first drop had an interesting extra twist in it, but the rest of the layout was pretty standard for such a ride. We didn't get much spinning for most of the ride until the end.
Next was Pikajuna, a ride that I didn't technically consider a "roller coaster" because it employed a motor to propel itself throughout. Nevertheless I knew it would be a fun ride and was eager to ride it. As is typical for such rides, the long train was sent through two cycles. It doesn't really have any drops, just minor elevation changes amidst turns and helixes. Its most notable feature is how it runs atop one of Helsinki's rock outcroppings.
Yet another coaster oddity was next, a small steel coaster called Tulireki, which I believe means "Fire Sledge" in Finnish. When we approached the entrance it was closed off with a chain, even though people were riding. I'm not sure why this was, but we were allowed in soon afterwards.
Tulireki has a feature which, as far as I know, is unique to it. The cars ride on suspensions, so they bounce a bit as they traverse the track. We tried to see if Chris could guess the effect, and eventually he did. However, whether on or off the ride the effect just wasn't all that obvious. If anything the ride was less fun than if it had just used standard coaster cars.
The final coaster for us to ride was called Vonkaputous. It was a "water coaster", a kind of cross between a roller coaster and a flume ride. It had enough dry track on which the car rolled for me to count it as a roller coaster, but it is certainly a borderline case. The park advertised it as a very wet ride, though I didn't remember it being as soaking as all that from our prior visit. Janna, having ridden and not wanting to get soaked, decided not to ride and held all our bags. We sat in a middle seat to avoid the worst of the splash as well. Besides the final splashdown the most memorable aspect of the ride was probably the nice view of the Linnanmäki sign from the lift.
Having covered all the coasters in the park, it was time to think about lunch. I had an agenda of my own. On our 2004 trip I'd seen signs for a dish with French fries topped by a kind of sausage. I'd been curious but hadn't had a chance to try it. I had always regretted not this and was eager to make up for not having done so this time. The others fortunately were willing to indulge me in my "wiener fries" (the sausage turned out to be sliced up hot dog). The Finnish name, "Makkaraperunat" was much harder to pronounce! They were served with a choice of condiments: catsup, onions, mustard, and "cucumber salad", by which they meant relish. I enjoyed it well enough and was glad to have indulged my curiosity, but wouldn't need to get the same thing again.
By that point we'd pretty much explored the entire area of the park behind the Linnunrata building. To get back to the rest of the park we climbed some stairs. Here we did a variety of attractions, including two scenic rides, the monorail and observation tower. Though not thrilling, I always try to ride such rides when on this kind of trip. Even a scenic overview of European parks can be edifying because they're often so well cared for and landscaped.
The rest of the attractions we visited that day were generally of a type associated with the classic amusement park experience, not thrilling but sometimes disorienting or just plain fun. Attractions such as classic dark rides and fun houses are becoming an endangered species in the US, so we were very interested in savoring them while on our Scandinavian trip.
A friend we'd encountered earlier in the day had recommended a cute ride called Kot-Kot to us, so it was the first of these attractions we rode. He hadn't described it much in detail except for saying that the cars looked like eggs. In fact the entire ride was themed around chickens, to the point of our being "serenaded" by an all-too-catchy song sung by a band of animated chicks (with names like Fanny and Peppi) while we waited in the queue. It soon became clear we were in line for a kids' ride. I didn't mind this except for the wait we'd had to invest in it. At least it was kind of cute.
Nearby was a more grownup-oriented attraction--the Ghost Train or Kummitusjuna. Oddly enough the cars looked like they'd been recycled from a different flat ride attraction called a Polyp. By standards of European dark rides it was pretty primitive, just a series of scenes that lit up as we passed by. Janna did get a big scare at one point by the noise of something growling next to her.
Also nearby was the fun house, called Vekkula. It had drawn a pretty considerable line, one of the longest we encountered that day, but it was worth it. The fun house is nearly extinct in America, and to experience a European one is always a treat. I hadn't remembered Vekkula being particularly great compared to some of the others on our earlier trip, but perhaps because it was the first I'd been in for a long time, I really enjoyed it. It is hard for me to recollect all the details of such attractions (in fact, almost none of it was familiar to me from my prior visit), but this one seemed to have at least the basics. Several effects, such as a rotating tunnel and a bridge through a room that rocked back and forth, made one dizzy. Others, such as a submarine-style ladder and moving steps, required some amount of physical skill to navigate, but there were bypasses for those who did not want to try them. Other stunts were of a less physical nature, such as a clown laughing at a TV, which happened to be showing the people watching him. The final stunt was a nice two-story double-dip slide.
On the other side of the park were a few other attractions. We passed quickly through the hall of mirrors, the usual set of distorted mirrors. These are amusing to look at but not very time consuming. More interesting was the mirror maze (Sokkelo), which had some interesting features like stained glass in some parts and a manikin or two located within the maze. Some such mazes can be more challenging than others, but in this case our own stupidity caused us to miss the exit for a while. It turned out that a simple jog to the left at the very end would have gotten us out. Because we missed it, we backtracked a long way unnecessarily.
We also went into a walk-through haunted attraction called Kammokuja. We were given 3-D glasses as we entered, which interacted with the attractions' Day-Glo paint job. The glasses gave them an easy way to determine if more people could be let in; there were only so many, and so if they were all out, they'd have to await people coming out to get more to give to the people in line. By walk-through standards it was not too scary, but there were a few startles, including a glass smashing sound. One of the more amusing effects was a figure of a woman looking away from us singing "La, la, la", then turning around to show a grotesque face.
Right next door was another dark ride, called Taikasirkus. It soon became clear that "Sirkus" meant "circus", and that this was a kiddie ride. In fact, it was an update of a ride we'd tried in 2004. The 2004 ride had been oriented toward kids, and given the circus theming we expected it still to be, but we wanted to ride it anyway. Such things can be charming or at least lead to a few chuckles. In this case, most of the laughs were due to the antics of the primitive-looking animated clowns. Throughout, a tune similar, but not quite identical to, the Liberty Bell March played. At the end, a manic-looking ringmaster bowed at us.
We went through one final area of the park, new since we'd visited in 2004. It was rather modern-looking, with elements of glass, stone, and water forming the decorative elements. There was a suspended airplane ride on a rail, that initially looked like the fun Turbulencia ride in Spain, but it turned out to be fully powered, so we didn't ride it. There was nothing else that I really cared to ride here but Chris and Mike rode a Polyp spinning ride.
A main theme that would emerge during this trip was ice cream. The ice cream in Scandinavia is fantastic, whether scooped or soft serve. We had our first taste of it at Linnanmäki, and couldn't resist it thereafter. In fact, we resolved to try the ice cream at every park we visited. Whether we succeeded or not you will have to wait to hear, but suffice it to say that I will regularly make an "ice cream report" part of these trip reports. I usually had soft serve, which was almost equivalent to what would in the US be considered custard, and unless otherwise noted, it is the soft serve that I'll be reviewing. As for Linnanmäki's, it turned out to be relatively average. The one drawback was that my cone tasted slightly of burnt toast. But the ice cream itself was great. Mike and Chris, who hadn't previously had any experience with Scandinavian ice cream, were blown away.
Eventually the time came to leave the park. About the only thing that we didn't do that was on our list was the carousel. Apparently it was a classic, but it didn't look particularly special, so we didn't feel like we'd missed too much. Nevertheless I was a bit sad to leave. In our 2004 visit I hadn't considered Linnanmäki to be one of the top parks we visited. I'd liked it well enough but it faded in comparison to some of the great places we visited later on. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it this time.
We boarded our coach for the first long drive of the trip, to the city of Tampere. Finland's countryside is quite pleasant, pine trees and yellow fields (which I believe were rapeseed) dominating the scenery, at least in the relatively southern portion of the country we were in.
Our hotel was across from the Tampere railway station. It was the first of several in the Scandic chain that we'd stay at. It was clearly a budget chain, of far lower quality than the Crowne Plaza. Nevertheless, it was suitable. One thing they did have was wireless included with the room, something that the Crowne Plaza did not provide. We went through what would become a fairly typical routine of getting our keys and then waiting through a long line to use the elevators to get to our rooms, one of the less appealing aspects of traveling in a large group.
We were on our own for dinner that evening. We got together with our trip mates after 9 to go out and seek something to eat. There was a kind of food court in the hotel, but we decided to venture out into the town instead. This turned out to be a good move, as we really enjoyed getting our chance to see a bit more of the city. Even better, Tampere was hosting a music festival called Tammerfest at the time, so the area was pretty lively. Near the river passing through the city there was a show tent set up and people sitting on the grassy bank waiting for a performance.
We wound up at a main square of the town, which happened to also be opposite the primary show tent of the festival. There had been some food stands near the river, but there were more eating options here. One that tickled our fancy was the "Wrong Noodle Bar", but it was closed. We saw others in our group bringing back Subway sandwiches, but we hoped for something more local. Another option was a chain called "Hesburger". We were told that they served a hamburger almost identical to the Big Mac, but for similar reasons we didn't want this. And previous experience with other non-McDonalds burgers in Scandinavia suggested we should avoid anything else.
We wound up at a kebab stand on the square, more temporary-looking than the restaurants surrounding it, so a bit closer to "street food". I had mine with rice and garlic sauce. Mike, who didn't care for fish or kebab, wound up having "wiener fries" again. He said they were much better than what we got in the park.
While we were eating, a show began at the stage across the street, so when we were done we decided to investigate. We would have had to pay to get in, but by positioning ourselves just right we could get a limited view of the stage. I didn't recognize any of the songs but after some investigation we determined that we were seeing a Swedish glam band called The Ark. Apparently they were quite big over there, and were in fact one of the headliners. I can't say I cared for them that much, but the lead singer did have a certain charisma. I would rather have seen The Damned or Mudhoney, other bands on the slate, but we didn't have a chance. If we'd been able to sit down I might have enjoyed it more, but standing as we were just to get a glimpse, we tired of it in about 15 minutes and began to head back to the hotel.
On the way back we had a bit more of a chance to get a sense of the character of the town. We noticed a post with many city names on it, including Syracuse, New York. We eventually figured out that it must have been all the sister cities of Tampere. As we crossed the bridge again we saw a waterfall upriver, perhaps a dam.
All in all, it was a good first day to kick off the trip. I had a very pleasant time at Linnanmäki, exceeding my expectations. At the end of the day our time spent in Tampere provided a nice coda.
This post is one in a series. For the other installments, see: