Summer reissue: Being in the midst of a global pandemic does funny things to you, finds Michelle Langstone as she gives in to an overwhelming urge to return to the Auckland amusement park of her youth.
First published September 22, 2020.
I don’t know if it’s nostalgia working, but my husband and I had an overwhelming urge to go back to Rainbow’s End the whole time we were in the second Covid-19 lockdown. Unconsciously I think we wanted to feel like kids again, unencumbered by the worries that currently beset the world. We were lured by the distinct lack of visitors; the park is operating on restricted numbers, running at about 40% capacity because of Covid-19. Because we hate crowds, and also waiting, it seemed a dream opportunity to get on the rides and run around like maniacs for an afternoon.
I did not anticipate the unsettling feeling of an amusement park that is mostly empty, and coming upon rides where the attendants are in full PPE gear, dousing the carriages and harnesses with some kind of disinfectant mist, which wafted across the air and bathed everyone waiting in line. It was unsettling seeing people being escorted on and off rides in their bubbles by people in masks and gloves. It was like watching people being led to their doom.
The last time I was at Rainbow’s End it was the early 2000s and I was shooting a Motorola cell phone commercial. I had to ride in the front car of what was then called the Coca-Cola Corkscrew, and we did 17 laps of the ride before the director got the shots he wanted. By that stage I was confused about my own gravity, and had a splitting headache. I thought I’d never go back to that cursed rollercoaster, but pandemics do weird things to all of us, and I practically ran to wait in line for it. It’s called the Corkscrew Coaster now, and it’s exactly the same as it always was: short, bumpy, and quite slow.
Rainbow’s End is still a good place to go to if you want to see some toxic masculinity on display. “Hey Karl – you’re a pussy!” yelled one guy, as he emerged, triumphant, from the Corkscrew Coaster. I don’t know why he looked so smug – it’s pretty tame as far as coasters go, and other people coming off the ride behind him were just barely out of nappies. Poor Karl, red-faced in the sunshine, muttered something like “already did it last time I was here” and the whole group wandered off, abusing each other at the top of their lungs. It’s reassuring that people can still be total eggs in a pandemic.
There were still teenagers waiting in line for the log flume, having a pash while Living on a Prayer blasted over the loudspeakers. I used to dream of being an attendant on the log flume. At 13 I had a detailed fantasy about how I’d have to go through the ride at the end of the day to make sure there was no damage, and I’d get a pash from my co-worker right before you come down the big slide at the end. Unfortunately the log flume is now a pit of despair. They’re not even trying to hide the fake rocks any more. They’ve put up those disco lights you hire for kids’ birthdays in long stretches of the tunnel to jazz it up a bit, but by and large the only fun to be had is the retro amusement of travelling in a fake log over some heavily chlorinated water. They’ve taken away the gigantic fluffy spider with the googly eyes. It’s a mess in there.
In other places, though, Rainbow’s End is triumphant. They’ve got a ride called the Stratosfear, and you have to choose if you want to wait in line for the tamer version, or the intense one. It’s like a gigantic spinning wheel on a stick and it gets higher and higher and spins faster and faster, until it’s too high and too fast, you almost cry. We hung upside down at the top of the ride, my torso pressed hard against the straps of the harness, and I thought: a malfunction is imminent. I will be flung onto the motorway and that still won’t be the worst part of 2020. I screamed at my husband even though there was nothing he could do to help me – social distancing meant there was a seat between us so I couldn’t even crush his hand in terror. I nearly spewed. The kid on the other side of me looked like he had fainted. It was brilliant.
There’s a ride called the Powersurge which, legend says, once froze in the middle of the ride and left everyone hanging upside down. No one has confirmed if it was a machine malfunction, or if the ride was stopped because some kids were spitting and ruining it for everyone. We loved that one, staggering out like we’d been inside a giant washing machine. My husband lost his cool on the Fearfall and made a sound I have never heard before, a kind of yelp you can only make when the contents of your stomach rushes up your throat and you didn’t expect it. It didn’t deter us from filling up with as much joyful sugary goodness as we could manage. There was no queue at the ice cream shop so we did our bit for the economy and went back twice. We gave it a hoon on the Scorpion Karts and I got stuck behind some punks who wouldn’t let me past. I forgave them because Rainbow’s End induces benevolence. Also I got kicked off the Scorpion Karts once as a kid and I didn’t want any trouble.
I think we spent three hours in the park all up, and got around all the rides we wanted. It was cheerful watching kids running around shrieking with delight. It was a bit weird without the crowds, and weirder still to walk up to a ride and give the attendant a fright because nobody had come by for half an hour. Nonetheless, by the time I left I had a sugar headache and was grumpy on the car ride home, and that’s exactly the outcome I had hoped for. If the worst complaint you have is that you shouldn’t have gone for the bag of candy floss after the two ice creams and the hot chips, then life is pretty good. For an afternoon I almost forgot that the world is embroiled in a state of catastrophe and I’m often quite worried and sad, and that’s worth the price of admission alone.
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