I was not prepared for how beautiful the people in Italy are. I stepped off the train from Austria into the Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia in Venice and immediately said “Italy? Holy Shitaly!” It was that striking.
Women walked by who not only looked like high-end models who had literally just stepped straight off the runway, but who had also employed Bjork’s costume designer from the Oscars to make sure they were wearing head-turning clothing that no one had ever worn before. AND they also had a professional stylist who made sure that their hair was inhumanly flawless and perfectly synchronized with their tattoos.
Venice was the first time in my life I’ve ever looked at a man and thought “I couldn't be friends with that guy, he’s too good-looking.” Not out of any sense of insecurity, but rather that this guy had clearly not had the experience of being a human being on Earth and we’d have nothing to talk about.
Hey Google, how do I get to my quaint Venetian guesthouse?
“Turn left at the girl with the big-” GOOGLE! I thought you were a gentleman!
Every ten feet I would realize I’d inadvertently stopped in the middle of the street just to rudely stare at someone who was parading by, just being the most striking person I’d ever seen. Until the next one walked by two minutes later. I grew up around Los Angeles and have spent plenty of time in Manhattan, the two skin-deep capitals of the United States, and yet I had never seen anything like this.
This is no attempt to throw shade on the rest of the fine people of Europe, but goddamn. You guys have clearly focused more on having trains and institutions that actually function instead of making smoking hot people. Paris, your ladies are lovely and have enough attitude for three or four people each. Germany, you punch above your weight in this department and the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg… uhm, thanks for playing? It was like I’d died and gone to shallow-people heaven.
OK, so this spiritual blog is going great so far.
I experienced several lucky breaks during this trip, and visiting Venice during a worldwide plague was definitely one of these. Venice usually has so many tourists that the masses threaten to sink the city even further, submerging it under a blanket of canal water and selfie sticks. Venice is often ground zero for the argument that tourism is broken and some kind of limits need to be put into place, as the continual carpet of tourists makes life miserable for the locals and raises the question of whether or not you can even enjoy a place when you’re constantly wading through throngs of people everywhere you go, inside a human traffic jam.
Venice wasn’t empty when I was there, not like the haunting footage from the early summer showing the great sites of Italy all utterly devoid of people, thanks to covid. There were a healthy number of people around and I had to wait in some fairly long lines for the most popular sites, but it was very manageable and I never felt like there was any danger of a mosh pit suddenly breaking out. Which was nice. And I think pretty much impossible to experience in Venice in the summertime, normally.
Who was missing? There were no Chinese tourists whatsoever, and I didn’t encounter any Americans at all while I was in Italy, so those two groups were a big part of it. Also no Australians, which is unusual almost anywhere you go. It seemed like most everyone who was there was visiting from other parts of Italy or the surrounding European countries, which made sense given the covid restrictions.
My ancient guesthouse was tucked down a quiet alleyway in the heart of old town, and featured a bathroom I had to duck inside because 90% of the bathroom was the underside of a staircase.
So what is there to do in Venice? Well, the best thing is just to wander the bizarre medieval alleyways and take in all the pretty and very old stuff.
And some not-so-old stuff.
You can, indeed, pay a gondolier to take you through the canals of Venice in a gondola and if you’re there with your wife or girlfriend, this is required by law. This also costs about $150 for a half an hour and seemed both absurdly touristy and kind of lame for a single person to do, so I made do with taking some nice photos from along the canals.
You can see all the same things walking along the canals for free and you can sing made-up Italian opera while you do it if you want to, nobody cares.
The thing I didn’t completely understand about Venice until I went there is that it’s actually a bunch of islands. I knew about the canals, obviously, but I imagined Venice to exist on the mainland with some canals dug out in place of streets because boats are fun. But in reality the canals are there because Venice is a series of 118 little islands that have been built up and filled in to form a patchwork city. Buildings are built on top of alder tree trunks that have been driven through the silt into the hard clay beneath, with stone slab foundations balanced on top of the trunks. Because of this, the city of Venice is gradually sinking into the silt and the entire city regularly floods at high tides.
The focal point of Venice is St Mark’s Square, a large open area flanked by historic buildings on each side.
The centerpiece of the square is St Mark’s Basilica, a Byzantine cathedral built in the 11th century and designed around Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It actually contains several artifacts from Hagia Sophia that were stolen during the Crusades. The opulent gold-covered church was considered a symbol of the wealth of Venice.
Photos were not allowed inside and I watched a few people get kicked out for being terrible at sneaking photos. I was a bit more successful, though it’s hard to frame photos shot from the hip.
Upstairs there’s a cool balcony overlooking the entire square.
Across from the Basilica there stands St Mark’s Campanile, a 323 foot tall bell tower that is the tallest structure in Venice. You can take an elevator to the top to see the view of all of Venice if you have the stomach for a long line, which I did.
The line itself wove haphazardly through the square, doubling back on itself several times, and after I’d been in line for about an hour and was near the front, some official dudes in uniforms came along and told us the line was blocking the square. OK, you should probably move the line then, or put up some ropes or something? Good idea, they agreed, but instead we are going to announce that the people who are in the middle of the line, which happened to double back near to the tower door, are now at the front of the line and everyone who was in line ahead of them should go to the end of the line or go get fucked, your choice. This made no sense whatsoever but this was my first introduction to how things work in Italy, which is to say they don’t. At all.
The couple in front of me got into a screaming match with the uniform dudes over this, which I understood completely. I took advantage of those guys being distracted to just walk over to the middle part of the line, which was now the front, and unceremoniously cut into line there. Nobody gave a shit, since it was obvious that I was cutting the line backwards, so this worked out fine. Eventually the uniform dudes got distracted by a Jamaican guy trying to sell weed in the square and the screaming couple were able to sneak into line behind me.
The tower was originally built sometime around 900 (no one is sure) as part of an effort to fortify Venice against invasion by Hungarians and other undesirables. One part of this fortification was a giant chain that was installed across the Grand Canal which could be pulled taught to stop ships from entering Venice, a detail which I found both fascinating and funny. The campanile was originally intended as a watchtower so the Venetians could notice that oh hey, pirates are coming, and over time it was gradually heightened and outfitted with bells to let everybody know it was time to go to work or go home or eat a calzone or whatever.
This all went great until the whole tower fell the fuck down in 1902. I felt the need to swear there to highlight the fact that the tower didn’t just tip over or get hit with a missile or something, it crumbled into a literal pile of bricks, just the most dramatic collapse of anything imaginable.
The tower had flirted with collapsing a few times before that. The wooden belfry had been covered in gold leaf to make it visible to ships out in the Adriatic Sea, and this combination in concert with the tower being the highest point in Venice made it a lightning magnet. In 1388 the tower was struck by lightning and the belfry burnt down. “Let’s rebuild it again in wood!” the locals decreed and no one could find any fault in this logic. To celebrate a decisive naval victory over their rivals the Genoese, the Venetians lit a bonfire in 1403 to illuminate the tower, which of course burnt down the belfry again. “Wood!” they decreed. It was rebuilt. In 1489 lightning struck again, the belfry burned, and the bells fell to the floor, cracking the tower structure itself.
“Wood?” the people of Venice suggested, sheepishly, but there was no money for that so a temporary clay tile roof was slapped on instead. An earthquake in 1511 opened up a huge crack in the tower and destroyed the clay and duct tape roof, so in 1513 when the tower was repaired a stone belfry was finally built. “We liked it better when it was wood,” said the locals.
As if to placate the wood-obsessed locals, a wooden Loggetta (a small lodge) was built at the base of the tower, which was damaged repeatedly by masonry falling off the tower every time there was an earthquake or a storm. In 1537, the tower was struck by lightning yet again and this time the Loggetta burnt down instead. The loggetta was ruefully rebuilt using boring old stone.
The tower didn’t have a clock on it because you could just set your watch by all the times the tower was struck by lightning. This happened again in 1548, 1562, 1565, 1567 and twice in 1582. Every time, the tower had to be repaired. This happened repeatedly through the 1600s. In 1745, four people in the square were killed by pieces of the tower falling off after another lightning strike. After the tower was damaged again in 1761 and 1762, a professor of astronomy installed Venice’s first lightning rod on the tower in 1776.
When it wasn’t busy getting hit by lightning, the tower’s other claim to fame is that in 1609, this is where Galileo demonstrated the telescope, which he sort-of invented. I say sort-of because a Dutchman named Lippershey sort-of invented the telescope the year before, after watching two kids play with lenses in his eyeglasses shop in such a way that they magnified distant objects. So really, these two unnamed Dutch kids invented the telescope. Just from hearing rumors that such a thing existed, Galileo then built his own telescope, which magnified 30x, compared to Lippershey’s weaksauce 3x model. Galileo was the first person to point this new invention at the stars.
Anyway, back to the more important subject of this stupid tower falling down. In 1873, somebody noticed that the base of the tower was incasinato, which is Italian for “fucked up.” “No worries,” said local officials, who plastered over the damage. In 1885, the square was excavated and it was discovered that the foundations were no, seriously, real bad you guys. Architects and engineers inspected the tower’s foundations in 1892 and again in 1895, and both times declared “No problemo, Cochise” which is Italian for “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.”
In 1902 they decided it was a good time to fix the roof of the tower, and that the best way to do this was to cut a hole in the base of the tower so they could remove the girder holding up the roof. The entire tower began to shake after they did this. “Whatchagonna do?” the people in charge declared. Towers gonna quake.
By a few days later there was a massive crack stretching all the way up the side of the tower. Uh-oh. Back then they inspected these kinds of things by affixing a piece of glass called a “tell tale” across the crack and hoping for the best. If you came back and the glass was broken, then ah shit. After a few days they checked back and the tell tales were all broken. They’d narced on the crack.
A commission was immediately formed to study the issue. They determined that this was no problem at all, everything will be fine guys. Not everyone was convinced, so they roped off the area around the tower to protect passersby from the pieces of the tower that were falling off and limited the tower bells to ringing once at the end of the work day, because they were afraid the vibration of the bells would bring the whole goddamned tower down. They also prohibited the town band from playing in the square, because they were worried a stray fart was going to spell the end of this house of cards.
Two days later the tower collapsed, falling inward on itself like a controlled implosion. A cat was killed in the collapse, which everyone was fine with because as they say in Italy, “a nessuno piacciono i gatti.” The community sprung into action, quickly raising money to rebuild the tower. “Dov’era e com’era!” the locals declared, demanding that the tower be built back up exactly the way it had been. Wait- exactly? It just fell down, shouldn’t you build it better this ti- “Dov’era e com’era!” Oh my god, you guys.
Thankfully, the builders had better ideas and altered the design to make it more resistant to falling the fuck down. They added to the old foundation, making it much wider. Two years after the new tower was completed in 1912, there were already cracks visible up the sides of the tower and in 2007 it was discovered that the entire tower was leaning by three inches, due to the old and new foundations sinking into the clay beneath Venice at different rates. Sospiro, you guys.
In 2013, a system of titanium cables were installed underground to keep this version of the tower from falling down. I’m sure it will be fine.
Further down the piazza toward the waterfront sits the Doge’s Palace. This is the grand palace of a famous Shiba Unu that is fond of side-eye. The palace was built in 1340 in anticipation of the famous internet dog, and is now a museum.
I wanted to see this because I am fond of dogs with attitude. Inside, there was disappointingly just a bunch of art and stuff.
Downstairs was a dungeon, because it’s Europe, you’ve got to have a dungeon or nobody will take your building seriously.
There is also the famous Bridge of Sighs, a limestone skyway that connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace with the prison next door across the canal. It’s said the name comes from the glance out these windows being the last view of beautiful Venice that prisoners would see before they disappeared into the bowels of the prison. Le sigh.
You will spend most of your time in Venice wandering aimlessly and taking in the sights, because you will be hopelessly lost. The narrow alleyways between buildings intersect at inscrutable angles and none go straight for more than about ten feet before they run into a canal and you have to jog left or right to find a bridge, which connects to a different alley… is this the same “street”? This makes navigating or knowing where you are at any point almost impossible. It is best to just wander around until you see something that looks interesting.
It’s also best to get some ice cream, because I had the best vegan ice cream of my life in Venice. It was so good that after I finished my cone while wandering through the Venice night, I backtracked a long way through the maze of alleys and tunnels to get back to the ice cream shop and buy another cone.
For some reason I was very amused that Venice also has a stylized Burger King. Everywhere in Europe has a Burger King.
In 2019, all of Venice was submerged under six feet of water, minutes after the regional council voted to reject a plan aimed at curbing global warming. This seems almost too funny to be true, as the actual council chambers were flooded immediately after the vote was held. In 2003, the government launched a project to prevent flooding by placing a series of inflatable pontoons in the lagoon, but the project stalled out after over 2 billion euros were lost to corruption. Le sigh.
After completing my original plan to visit Paris Disneyland, Efteling and Europa Park on this trip, I began to become curious about what other theme parks in Europe would be like. Does Italy have theme parks? What are they like? I decided to check out the top three parks in Italy, so I made my way west from Venice to Peschiera del Garda in north central Italy, and I was off to Movieland Park.
The bus dropped me off on some desolate country road like I was going to elementary school out on the prairie, and I walked up the highway and through the arches of Movieland: The Hollywood Park.
Inside, the park celebrated the magic of all things Hollywood, with all the splendor of a place that had clearly not paid to license any of this stuff.
Movie rights are licensed to theme parks in odd and overlapping ways in different countries, which is why you have things like Marvel character-themed rides at Universal Studios in Orlando but not at the Disney Parks across town, even though Disney owns Marvel now. Universal never built Marvel rides in California, which caused their rights there to lapse, so now Disney’s California Adventure is building a Marvel land. Likewise for the Disney parks in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which already have MCU rides and are building more. But Disney World in Florida has to settle for a Guardians of the Galaxy ride, since Universal never used those guys.
Walking around Movieland, I was trying to figure out what studio they had a deal with. There’s Robocop and James Bond, they’re MGM…
And… wait, Star Wars?
OK yeah they’re not licensing any of this stuff, they’re just doing whatever the hell they want. Italy must not be real on top of this kind of thing.
I laughed out loud as I walked down the avenue and spotted an ice cream shop. Oh cool, Cold Stone Creamery! Let’s get some… wait, Ice Stone Creamery?
Oh Movieland, you magnificent bastards.
OK, so what’s this place got going on? Every theme park in Europe is required by law to have some kind of Old West area, even if it’s a theme park about deep space exploration in the future. So where’s the… Oh Cooter, what have you got yourself up to now?
The girl riding the rather pathetic mechanical bull was wearing a shirt that was somehow for the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers at the same time, which I think would be illegal in the US.
Kids were riding some kind of weirdly-carpeted spinning Octopus ride that honestly didn’t look that safe at all.
Okay then! Let’s go on a ride. Reading about this place in advance, everyone agreed you had to go on Magma 2.0. So let’s do it!
Oh, or Magma 2.1. Clearly this ride had had some kind of software update. I hoped 2.0 hadn’t killed anyone.
After waiting in line with a bunch of very tan, muscled and boobed Italians, the VISITOR TRUCK pulled up and everyone on it applauded. They were let out, the truck was hosed down with some kind of dangerous covid-killing chemicals, and we piled on.
This ride was clearly modeled after the Tram Tour at Universal Studios, something I have plenty of childhood nostalgia for. Cool, so let’s see how they do this in Italy!
Suddenly the VISITOR TRUCK peeled out and we rocketed up the street, bouncing over curbs and squealing around turns as everyone in the truck screamed and held on for dear life. At one point I was, quite literally, almost bounced out of the truck and saved myself only by grabbing the railing and hooking my feet under the bench seat. Holy shit! These kind of rides normally operate under the concept of simulated danger, everybody pretends along that the giant shark robot might really leap into the truck, etc. But it was quickly becoming clear that Italy didn’t go in for any of this fake danger bullshit.
The vibe in the truck having shifted from “Ha ha theme park” to “How many people have died on this thing?” in an instant of floored acceleration, and now everyone was hyper-aware and vigilant. We dipped down through a watery ravine, then the truck stalled out and we slid backwards into the water. Wait, is that part of the ri- suddenly we were drenched by a shocking amount of cold water.
Now everyone was laughing in recognition that this ride was just gonna be bonkers crazy. This general vibe of “Fuck it, let’s see what happens” was enhanced by the driver telling us probably important safety things in Italian, if such things exist at all in Italy. Regardless, I speak no Italian. We pulled down into the basement of some kind of power station, where an earthquake or something suddenly rocked the truck.
The lights went out and as the ground continued to shake, sparks flew and electricity arced around the truck as the room filled with billowing smoke. Red emergency lights spun as an alarm sounded and we peeled out of the basement into the bright daylight.
Outside, everything was on fire. A wrecked gas truck lay on its side, and as we passed, massive flames shot out shockingly close to us, the wave of the heat uncomfortably hot on our faces. I’ve certainly seen rides that used fire before, but never so close that you squinted your eyes as it dried your wet clothes.
After we escaped the flames we plunged into a ravine of fairly deep water that was somehow also on fire, then on the ramp up out of the soup, the truck’s engine began to smoke profusely and we slid backwards into the ravine, before loud gear shifting finally powered us back out and squealing way too fast through the narrow back alleys of the lot and around to where the ride began.
As we pulled up, we too applauded, and I realized the people before us had been applauding both in appreciation of the unpredictable thrills of the ride as well as in celebration of having survived it.
Well hey, that was a lot of fun! Suddenly I could understand why I’d seen such split opinions online about what the best theme park in Italy was. Opinions of Movieland were all over the place, some thought it was the best, some thought it was the worst. I could see now that it was both at the same time and I was up for it.
I made my way to Diabolik Invertigo, the park’s biggest roller coaster. This proved almost impossible to find in spite of towering over the park, because the entrance was so poorly laid out. A park employee looked at me like I was crazy when I asked how to get to the ride entrance, but I also spent the rest of the day telling lost people how to get there when I was waiting in line for other rides.
Diabolik was something I hadn’t seen before as it was a Boomerang, meaning you go through the course and loops forwards and then again backwards, but it was also an inverted coaster where your feet dangle free. The seats faced in both directions.
Being pulled up the lift hill backwards, I felt some genuine anxiety after what I had seen of the park so far, wondering if I’d be able to catch myself if the restraints suddenly let go. Then the ride took off and it was fine, looping upside down and backwards and all that fun stuff, including a high-speed zip through the station, which is always fun.
After experiencing the charming jankiness of the rest of the rides at the park, when I was at my hotel that night I looked up Diabolik Invertigo online to see what the story of this ride was. I ended up being glad I hadn’t done this before I went to the park!
This ride had started life as Two-Face: The Flip Side, themed after the Batman villain, at Six Flags America in Maryland. In 2003, an electrical fault caused the ride to stall on the lift hill, leaving riders hanging there for two hours. In 2007 this happened again, and 40 minutes into the situation the ride suddenly jolted back into the station at high speed, tearing one of the hydraulic fluid hoses, which sprayed hot fluid on the faces of many of the riders. Ten people were treated for back and neck injuries and two had to go to the hospital to have burns treated, but thankfully all of it was relatively minor. Six Flags quietly sold off the ride and it disappeared for a while, before reappearing at Movieland here in Italy with a new name and theme.
Well okay then! I was off to do something possibly less sketchy. There was a weird line of people that disappeared into the back of a semi trailer. What in the world is this? Are we going to get tattoos?
Once inside the stiflingly-hot trailer, I realized we were on some kind of Knight Rider ride. It seemed like they actually had the licensing rights for this one, because how expensive could that have been?
Inside the trailer, diagrams on the wall told us everything we needed to know about the world of Knight Rider, like it stars David Hasselhoff and two other people who have nothing whatsoever to do with this ride.And that there was a truck called Goliath: The Unstoppable Force. But whatever you do don’t forget Goliath Returns, when the truck returned with no missiles for some reason. No true fan of Knight Rider would ever forget that.
And also don’t forget the KITT Superjet, a fast boat with seating for 16, which surely existed on the show and wasn’t just shoehorned in here to make it seem like this ride made any sense at all.
In the back of the trailer, kids climbed over the full-sized KITT Trans Am, complete with flashing red light on the front and a talking voice and stuff. I waited patiently for the kids to get done rubbing covid all over the car so I could get a photo of just the car itself. Instead, this hilarious kid dutifully stood still so a complete stranger could take a portrait of him and this super car.
The line wrapped back out of the trailer and onto the docks, where we strapped on life preservers and listened to a bunch of safety stuff in Italian. I kept laughing every time they showed the safety graphic, which looked like a dude sitting on a toilet.
These graphics were interrupted occasionally by David Hasselhoff himself appearing on our screens to tell us we were about to embark on a radical adventure aboard the KITT Superjet. The best part about this was that Hoff was speaking in English, with his words then repeated in dubbed Italian, but the two weren’t saying quite the same things. Hasselhoff kept referring to himself as David Hasselhoff, while the Italian translation referred to him in character as Michael Knight. It cracked me up to think that they couldn’t get Hasselhoff to stop referring to himself by his real name for two minutes.
He was also wearing a tee shirt that said “Don’t Hassel the Hoff” with his face on it as he sat in Michael Knight’s car.
We climbed into the Superjet, which proceeded to haul ass around a lagoon filled with various obstacles. This was very much like the jet boats I had ridden in New Zealand, only with a half-assed storyline thrown in to explain why you were suddenly hydroplaning in wild circles skimming over the top of the water. At one point we pulled into a building to hide as a helicopter flew overhead, and gunfire squibs were timed perfectly with holes that appeared in the walls and splashes in the water for a fun simulation of some helicopter people really not liking you.
One of the things that intrigued me about the park was their drop tower ride, Hollywood Tower. For one, it was a first generation Intamin drop tower, a style that doesn’t really exist anywhere anymore, and two because it looked like a hilarious rip off of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at the Disney parks.
And it was both of those things.
What’s that? The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror? Never heard of it! Oh, it’s styled after the Hollywood Tower hotel in L.A. and says “Hollywood Tower” in big light-up letters on the side, just like our ride? What an amazing coincidence! It’s also a drop tower ride? Amazing!
The Hollywood Tower dragged us to the top in a little cage, and as we got to the top I burst out laughing since the ride was blasting the Twilight Zone theme music. Oh, you guys. At the top, we admired the view of the entire park for a moment, then the HOLLYWOOD TOWER letters began to shake and go crooked, smoke puffed out, and we drooooooooped, ending up on our backs sliding along the ground as the track curved.
God, the balls on this park. I love it.
On the other side of Movieland there was a mysterious indoor ride themed after the submarine movie U-571. This was the one other instance where it seemed likely the park really did have the rights for this thing, since they couldn’t have cost more than a dollar. If I were the studio I’d let somebody build that ride for free in case it might inspire somebody to rent U-571.
Inside, we went through a vaguely naval-themed ride queue before entering a huge submarine hangar. Whoa, there’s a full-sized submarine in here.
Park employees in naval uniforms ordered us to stand against the wall and prepare ourselves, the enemy was approaching! Wait, are we the Nazis?
Suddenly all hell broke loose, there were machine gun sounds, lights flashing on and off and explosions that were splashing water up into the air as the employees rushed us toward the waiting submarine.
“Get in, get in!” they were probably saying in Italian.
We all piled into the submarine, ducking down as we shuffled along and took our places, sitting on top of large torpedoes that were lined up along the walls of the sub.
The hatch was closed and the sub pitched forward as we dove, the whole thing shaking as depth charges detonated loudly all around us. The torpedo we were perched on didn’t seem to be attached to anything and it rocked back and forth as the submarine pitched from side to side. Suddenly the torpedo tipped all the way over and I was holding the wall to keep from falling down. What the- Did the ride just break?
I looked over and realized the very obese Italian guy sitting next to me had fallen off the torpedo and taken the entire thing down with him. He was laying between the toppled torpedo and the wall, waving his arms and legs in the air like a bug on its back. Several of us helped him back up and righted the ship, as it were.
The deeper we went, the more the submarine moaned and water sprayed through the joints in the walls, air occasionally blasting at us too as the enemy attempted to bomb us back to hell. Everyone on the ride screamed loudly with each new development, alternating the screams with contagious bursts of laughter. Italians are super-dramatic and so are their rides! It was a blast.
Eventually we survived the attack and made our way back to the surface, the submarine pitching the opposite way as we climbed. Man, that was a really fun and creative ride.
In the afternoon I had taken my seat in the park’s large arena to take in the John Rambo Stunt Spectacular.
Do they have the rights for this? Who knows. Why do they always call him “John Rambo”? Nobody uses his first name. Maybe that was a copyright loophole somehow. Suddenly I remembered I had a work meeting to call into in five minutes. Damned time difference! I put in my earbuds and thought for a second I could take the meeting from within the Spectacular but then a helicopter came in and started setting off bombs and I realized this wasn’t going to work at all.
I ran out of the arena and sat in the picnic bench area, where you were allowed to take your mask off to eat, as I dialed in to the Zoom meeting from my phone.
“Sean! Where are you now? It looks pretty!”
“Italy. Please excuse any loud noises, they’re doing a Rambo thing and there are lots of explosions.”
“Italy? I’m kind of disappointed you’re not somewhere more dangerous.”
“They’re literally shooting a machine gun right now.”
This was a fantastic meeting.
Near the picnic area there was a ride called Android 3D, which I was 1000% certain had been called Transformers 3D before a lawsuit forced a hasty rebranding.
Inside, we waited in a very long line to get into a theater where we were treated to a Star Tours-style ride that revolved around giant fighting robots and that featured the worst CGI I have ever seen in my life. And I’ve seen some really bad CGI. The goings-on on the screen were augmented by park employees in costumes who were interacting with the on-screen events, which was pretty fun. At the end of the show (which was completely terrible in any objective sense) the crowd loudly applauded the performers in appreciation of their gusto. I found this touching.
At the exit we passed the bust of a Terminator that was connected to nothing that currently existed at the park. Was this licensed at one point? Had they just done some kind of Terminator ride anyway until the studio lawyers caught up with them? Why does it have egg beaters for hands? Who knows.
The park also had a Dinosaur area for kids, the aesthetic for which could best be described as “Shitty Flintstones.”
Reading reviews of the park ahead of time, fans implored me to not miss Bronto Jet, yet sadly this coaster was covered in rust and clearly had not thrilled riders for quite some time. A sad velociraptor did its best Elisa Lam impression from the top perch.
Sadly, a few of the other rides were gone now too, like the Tomb Raider themed Topspin, and a couple of the indoor dark rides were closed due to covid. But that mattered little. My heart was full for this little park that could, bending the rules of copyright law and basic safety to make sure visitors had a memorable and fun time.
Gardaland! The Disneyland of Italy beckoned.
All right Gardaland, whatchu got for me?
Weird tire-themed landscape art? Check!
Obligatory Old West area with Italian people pretending to be Mexican? Check!
Huge kiddie area I got some weird looks for being in? Check!
Shitty Vekoma SLC that beats the shit out of you for two minutes? Check!
Obligatory dinosaur land for the little boys? Check!
Covid masks? Che- Whoops, wait.
Obligatory Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off? Check!
Some of the Pirates of the Caribbean rip-offs are quite good and in some ways better than the original. Gardaland’s I, Cosari was not one of these. It was terrible. It depended mostly on video projected on the cave walls as you boated by, spiced up by the occasional hilariously bad animatronic with an arm bending in an impossible direction.
If you’re having trouble finding work, learn animatronics, they really need you in Europe.
Most of the European parks rip off Disney in some way. Gardaland was the exception, where it was doing its own OH GODDAMMIT Gardaland why do you have a vending machine full of Dumbo dolls?
Oh cool, Gardaland has a whole Kung Fu Panda-themed land. I’m sure I’ll be able to find some more interesting food here, Asian food is usually vegan-friendly-
Oh, Asian... hot dogs. Okay.
And Asian Focaccia. Nice job, Italy.
I don’t even want to know what you guys are serving in your Middle-Eastern restaurant.
Gardaland had its own B&M Dive Coaster, like Baron 1898 in the Netherlands. This one was called Oblivion: The Black Hole and was themed after, surprise! A black hole.
The drop area had cool theming around it where everything around it was being warped and pulled into the black hole.
They also had a cool wing coaster where you were riding on a...
To be 100% honest, 3/4ths of the way through my day at Gardaland I was kind of grouchy, as I’d only managed to get on three rides all day. The park was running a virtual queuing system through their app to limit covid exposure from standing in line with a bunch of other mooks. This meant you were rarely ever standing in line, which was nice, but it resulted in very long wait times for all the rides, since nobody ever looks at a long line and says “F that!” when they can just sit and eat Asian hot dogs in the shade while they wait. The “F that!” factor is the thing that usually keeps physical lines in theme parks manageable, without it I was waiting an average of two hours per ride. No bueno.
But my luck turned toward the end of the day, when the park began to clear out about 90 minutes before closing time and I got to blitz through several rides in that last hour and a half. This really salvaged the park for me and I left on a happy note.
The same virtual queuing system was in place for the restaurants, even the little carts out on the street where you buy a bottle of water, which was a total pain in the ass. I was scolded for picking up a bottle of Fanta on my own, which needed to be handled by official personnel. On the bright side, Italy was taking covid way more seriously than anywhere else I’d been so far on the trip, and it looked to be working.
In my blitz at the end of the day as the sun was beginning to set, I got to ride on Funga da Atlantia, the park’s insanely well-themed double-drop water ride.
Cool beans. My favorite, however, was Shaman, an unassuming Native American-themed rollercoaster that was way more fun than it looked.
What is that, an ad for paper towels? “Don’t squeeze the Shaman!”
The station had cool Native theming and a looping video explaining that while riding this rollercoaster you will turn into a wolf and go on a vision quest, so get your affairs in order.
I happened to be sitting next to an Italian guy around my age who seemed to be there by himself and we shared a fun camaraderie as we enjoyed the ride’s snappy loops and the beautiful view of the sunset at the track’s highest point. At one point we looped through some kind of dreamcatcher portal that was a really fun addition.
Leaving the park I walked through the same Disco Portal I’d entered through, where temperature sensors in the tunnel (no hats!) made sure you didn’t have covid.
Getting off the park shuttle and walking back to my fun little Inn on the shores of Lake Garda, I passed through a bizarre Saturday night Swap Meet on the waterfront, which is where you want to go if you find yourself low on weird pillows, homemade Barbie clothes, or lamps made out of booze bottles.
The next morning I was off to San Marino far to the south, though I hit some hiccups trying to find a train that would actually take me where I needed to go. The train I was expecting at Lake Garda didn’t arrive and the dude behind the train counter was no help at all. Eventually one of the janitors helped me out because he was a cool dude.
I had to change trains in Bologna, which amused me greatly. I wanted to ask the locals if it was pronounced baloney. I wanted to climb to a high observation point so I could look out across the land and declare “Aww, that's a bunch of Bologna!" I wanted to just walk around and declare "Ba-lo-ney!" at everything I saw like I was Schwartz in A Christmas Story. I am a mature and cultured traveler.
After my high times in San Marino, I was off to Mirabilandia, which is sort of the Six Flags of Italy. On the way I passed a very suspect-looking cow.
Whatcha got for me, pirate duck?
Scary clown-themed kids’ area? Check!
Kids’ area capped off by an absolutely insane floating house with bloodshot stoned eyes that rotate around maniacally as the house lifts off up into the sky, the children inside pounding on the windows, begging for release from this hellish trap? Check!
Obligatory Dinosaur area? Check!
Obligatory Old West area with an insane giant spinning sombrero? Check!
The Old West area did have a fun pair of drop towers called Oil Towers 1 and 2, one which lifted you slowly to the top and then dropped you, like drop towers tend to do, but the other just shot you straight up in the air heart-stoppingly fast and then slowly lowered you back down. I had a hilarious time trying to explain to an Italian couple in line with me what the difference between the two rides was using the three words I knew in Italian.
Shitty Old-West-Themed Wild Mouse ride that was fun in spite of itself for how violent and unpredictable it was? Check!
Shameless knock-off of the Kung Fu Panda area at Gardaland? Check!
Probably unlicensed movie characters in the cafeteria? Check!
Cafeteria table sign: “Please take this little sign and leave it on your table. It will tell us we need to disinfect the table after you have gone.”
Me: “Oh trust me, you’re gonna know I was there. You won’t need a little sign. I plan on infecting the shit out of this place.”
Mirabilandia had a quirky little arcade that I enjoyed when I was passing through to get change so I could buy a Gatorade from the vending machine before I died.
The park also had the world’s tallest water ride drop, which got us preposterously “might as well have just jumped in the water” wet. As I was standing in line for this ride I looked around at my line-mates and laughed as I realized what I’d been told about Rimini was true: This really was the “Jersey Shore” part of Italy. Loud and minimally dressed was the order of the day. Most folks were wearing these refillable beer steins that you could hang around your neck, which I didn't understand the physics of at all.
The park also had a Hot Wheels stunt car show that I got kicked out of for showing up late. What it did not have, however, was any decent vegan food at all, which was surprisingly a general theme all across Italy. As I was walking through the park, trying to decide if I was going to have french fries for the eleventh meal in a row, I laughed as I realized this was like the monkey’s paw version of a childhood dream come true.
“Guess what, Sean?” You’re going to eat like eight meals in a row in theme parks!”
Seven year old Sean: “YAAAAAAAAY!!”
Forty-Three Year Old Sean: “FUUUUUUUU-”
BUT! Before I make it sound like Mirabilandia wasn’t a fun day, I was coyly saving the best for last. The reason this park was on my list is that it contains two of the top-rated coasters in all of Europe. The first was iSpeed, an Italian racing-themed Intamin blitz coaster that uses linear induction motors to create a magnetic field that launches you from zero to 70 miles per hour in the time it takes you to scream “Wait my hat!!”
iSpeed launches you up a very tall tophat before diving back down and going through a fun series of slaloms and corkscrews at high speed.
It was a fun ride but didn’t quite cash the check that the brutally long line had written, for me anyway. Thankfully I returned again at night and got to ride a second time with half the wait time, and by then the ride had both sped up even more and proved itself to be more fun in the dark, so I left this one pretty satisfied in the end.
All of this is just, however, build-up to get to the other top coaster in the park, Katun.
Katun is a Mayan-themed B&M inverted coaster, and the longest invert in Europe. The lift hill takes you high up above the park for an amazing view right before a sudden twisting dive pummels you down toward the Earth and through an extremely intense series of loops and dives, swooping down to just above ground level and through underground tunnels, swerving past walls you’re sure your feet are going to clip before racing back up into the sky again.
The track itself seemed to roar like a beast as we thundered along, relentlessly whipping and arcing through the sky. I’d never experienced g-forces or momentum like this, the ride flinging us around at will and without letting up. It was like the best parts of paragliding and skydiving, only on PCP. There was no chance to catch your breath as hell continuously broke loose all around you. But it was never uncomfortable or painful, only thrilling. Right up until the moment we shoooooonked back into the station.
Wooh! That was fun. I want to ride that again. I got back in line and this time noticed there was a separate line to ride in the front row. Huh. Might as well give that a shot.
Riding in the front was not only a different experience of this coaster, it was a different experience than I’d ever had before in my life. In the front row, you not only had no track below your feet and no view of the track above you, but you also had no one at all in front of you blocking your view or reminding you that you were on a rollercoaster. It was like you were flying and there was no coaster involved at all. This somehow flipped some kind of switch in my brain and opened up an entirely new experience.
I stuck my hands and feet straight out in front of me and imagined I was flying under my own power, like some insane, drunken wizard. WOOOOSH up into the sky, the world spinning upside-down below me as the horizon and sky switched places. WOOOOSH back down to the ground, skimming along the grass and ZOOOM through a tunnel as I banked to the right, my hands seeming to hold the wall to my left at bay with nothing but wizard magic. WHOOOSH back up into the sky for another loop.
We raced back into the station and herked to a halt, my whole body buzzing and tingling and my head swimming with endorphins. Holy Shit. I feel like God. That was amazing!
I ran around the ride and got back in line. All in all I was able to loop Katun seven times before the park shut down for the night. Each time was just as exhilarating as the last, as liberating as your first lucid dream, a completely magical break from your mundane experience as a human being trapped in an Earthbound body. I whipped through the sky as the sun set and screamed through underground tunnels in the ominous dark of night.
My whole body was still buzzing as I left the park, floating on a cloud. Oh my God.
I had fully intended for Mirabilandia to be the last theme park I was going to visit on this European trip. I ended up visiting 23 more parks before the year was over, all because of Katun. I was hooked.