Gold Reef City
Johannesburg, South Africa
“The largest and most famous theme park on the African continent”
Just like many other travellers, I always try to inform myself about my upcoming destinations. And while reading about our trip to South Africa, I noticed that many websites talk about safety issues. The country is praised for its unique nature, wildlife and hospitality, but travel guides also mention high crime rates. Especially the country’s largest city, Johannesburg, doesn’t have the best reputation. Some people may choose to just skip Johannesburg entirely, but that’s not an option for us. This metropolis is our gateway to the beautiful Pilanesberg National Park and it’s home to Africa’s most legendary amusement park. And not visiting Gold Reef City while going to South Africa? That would be the most severe criminal act I can imagine.
A nightly stroll through Johannesburg may not be advisable. Still, I have to admit that we don’t encounter any problems in this so-called city of crime. With a little common sense, you can have a perfectly good time in most destinations. That’s not any different in Johannesburg. Most of our Johannesburg time is spent at Gold Reef City, which lies about six kilometres south of the city center. Although it’s just a stone’s throw from the extremely poor township of Soweto, Gold Reef City has a quite modern vibe. The resort consists of a Vegas-style casino, a theme park and two luxury hotels. These are the Southern Sun Hotel (above the casino) and the Gold Reef City Theme Park Hotel, which is literally in the park. And spending the night in the middle of an amusement park, that seems interesting to us.
We’re checking in at the Gold Reef City Theme Park Hotel on Thursday. And since the park is only operational Fridays through Sundays during this period, we end up at a deserted Gold Reef City. This doesn’t create the most ideal atmosphere, but I always enjoy seeing theme parks in an empty state. Hotel guests are allowed to stroll through the entire park, so we’re treated to a little preview. I’m pleasantly surprised by the park’s high theming level and perfectly maintained gardens. The hotel’s appearance doesn’t fail to impress, either. The hotel is located in The Village, a themed area that’s reminiscent of Main Street USA at the Disney parks. The rooms have been integrated in several buildings and it all looks very attractive. Despite the rooms’ rather simple design, I definitely recommend the Gold Reef City Theme Park Hotel. By the way… every room has park view and unlimited access to the park is included during your stay.
The next day. A friendly hotel receptionist told us that Anaconda is the most popular roller coaster in the park. That’s why we immediately head to this bright green giant after our breakfast. We are the first guests to arrive there, even before the park’s official opening time at 9.30 AM. This allows us to take the front seats without any queue. The day couldn’t have started better.
Anaconda was built by the Swiss company Giovanola. That may not be the world’s most famous manufacturer, but their products look pretty good. Anaconda even reminds me of B&M: it uses a similar track type and the layout is clearly inspired by the classic Batman clones. Even in terms of comfort and thrill, Anaconda is able to compete with the average B&M ride. Anaconda turns out to be a surprisingly smooth and intense roller coaster. Especially its first helix (which was built around a giant rock formation) and its two corkscrews provide a lot of G-forces. That’s why I consider Anaconda as a world-class roller coaster. And although Anaconda isn’t heavily themed, the exotic vegetation and an adjacent pond provide a photogenic location. The only thing that I don’t like, is Anaconda’s colour scheme. Green is nice, but the same colour for supports and tracks never really works, if you ask me.
With six coasters on offer, Gold Reef City convincingly claims its title as the roller coaster capital of Africa. Our next credit is Runaway Train, a rather unusual powered coaster. The attraction is characterised by a surprisingly short train and a pretty long layout, which includes an indoor portion through a cave. The ride has its downsides: the indoor part, for example, is weakly themed and some curves are banked too heavily. Yet, we exit the vehicle with big smiles. Runaway Train may not be perfect, but it’s fun because it’s different. Many powered coasters only consist of gentle helices, but that’s not the case here. Besides, Runaway Train is a bit mysterious from a coaster enthusiast’s point of view. The opening year is unknown and nobody seems to be certain about the ride’s manufacturer. Wikipedia lists Mack Rides, but Roller Coaster Database doesn’t confirm that.
Another credit can be found at the opposite side of the park, in the Lost Reef area. I’m talking about a bright red Zierer roller coaster. This German manufacturer is primarily known as a supplier of small-scale family coasters. However, the company has also developed a few larger roller coasters. In 1995, for example, they delivered the 700 metres’ long, 24 metres’ tall Super Dragon to Navel Land in Fukuoka. However, the park was closed forever after only three years of operation. Gold Reef City saw a great opportunity and brought Super Dragon to South Africa. Here, the ride is known as Jozi Express, as a reference to Johannesburg’ local nickname. And just like its name-giving city, Jozi Express has some sharp edges. Its layout is excellent and the train is comfortable, but the actual ride experience is quite rough. I wouldn’t describe it as torture, but we aren’t interested in re-rides, despite a nonexistent queue.
Bad news for avid credit hunters: Gold Reef City doesn’t allow adult riders on Shongololo if they don’t bring a child. This is a Wacky Worm which was placed in the park’s kiddie section. And the bad news doesn’t end there, as Kiddies Corner is undoubtedly the ugliest area of the entire park. Gold Reef City is filled with solid theming and exotic vegetation, but the children’s area is a big exception. By the way… Shongololo isn’t the only roller coaster we won’t be riding today. Ride mechanics are working on Golden Loop all day long, but they don’t seem to get the ride operational. That’s a shame, especially because we’re talking about a Shuttle Loop, designed by coaster legend Anton Schwarzkopf. Fun fact for coaster nerds: Golden Loop could be found at Carowinds until the year 1988.
Kind of surprised that I didn’t talk about Tower of Terror yet? Well, that’s about to change, as we’re approaching the ride’s iconic shaft tower. This impressive structure dominates the southern half of the park and it draws a lot of attention from spectators. And for many visitors, this seems enough. It comes as a bit of a surprise, but Tower of Terror’s queue is rather short during the afternoon. Or at least… it looks short. As Tower of Terror makes use of one 8-seater train, the overall capacity turns out to be dramatically low. I estimate that the ride welcomes approximately 100 riders per hour, so even seemingly short lines may become a time-consuming affair. But we’re in luck. After only 25 minutes, two guests are needed to fill up a pair of front seat spots. Yay!
The ride experience starts with a long, flat piece of track. This looks a bit awkward, but this used to be the location of the ride’s original lift hill. About 15 years ago, however, it was replaced by the vertical lift we know today. The lift brings the train to its maximum height of 30 metres, were it comes to a complete stop for ten seconds. This is a perfect way of building up tension, right before the big drop. The holding brake (as known from B&M’s Dive Machines) is missing, but this is a perfect alternative.
Tower of Terror’s highlight is obviously the 50-metre drop into a dark mine tunnel. The descent is fast and it creates an incredible feeling, but it also seems to be over in a fraction of a second. However, the following tunnel will remain in my mind for quite some time. Despite the fact that G-forces have already been significantly lowered compared to earlier (originally, Tower of Terror reached a whopping 6.3G), I experience a greyout as the vehicle flashes through the tunnel. Unfortunately, I also experience some quite severe roughness. That’s why I’m having mixed feelings after my ride. On the one hand, it’s awesome to obtain a legendary credit like Tower of Terror. On the other hand, the ride caused a minor headache, just because of the lacking comfort. Tower of Terror has definitely delivered an experience of mythical proportions, but it will never be a top 10 coaster for me.
Johannesburg’s climate is wonderful. We’re visiting during the local spring, while daytime temperatures reach a wonderful 30°C. That’s why we don’t hesitate to test Gold Reef City’s water rides. The first one is called Log Ride and it’s obviously a classic log flume. It’s intertwined with the tracks of Runaway Train and that creates some good interaction. Despite Log Ride’s dated appearance, it’s a great family attraction. The layout is a lot longer than I expected and both descents are quite wet. Patience is required, though. Log Ride’s capacity is dramatically low. Only one boat is dispatched every two minutes, which causes the queue to move very slowly. There are just a handful of people in front of us, but our wait time is approximately 30 minutes.
Another water ride can be found just around the corner, adjacent to Anaconda. And fortunately, Raging River Rapids‘ operations are a lot more efficient. Despite its popularity, the this ride’s queue is limited to 25 minutes during the afternoon. And this isn’t the only good news; Raging River Rapids turns out to be one of the better rapid rivers on Earth. The layout is nice and there are plenty of chances to get (soaking) wet. In addition, Gold Reef City has hit a home run with the decoration of this attraction. The river was beautifully integrated into the landscape, vegetation is beautiful and they also added a dark tunnel. When it comes to rapid rivers, this is a winner.
Gold Reef City offers everything you’d expect from a decent theme park. The park has lots of children’s rides and the Lost Reef area is filled with twisting/turning flat rides. However, the most unique attraction is the Underground Mine Tour Experience. As the name of the park suggests, it was built on the location of an old mine. The actual mine shaft is still in place and it’s currently the starting point of guided tours. The additional cost of 50 rand (about 2.75 euros) is ridiculously low, so there’s literally no reason to skip this experience. Besides, this is much more than a boring museum. We’re actually transported to a dept of 75 metres, followed by a short guided tour through dark caves. Although we only get to see a small part of the actual mine (which extends to 3.2 kilometres below ground level), I consider this as one of the must-dos at Gold Reef City. Our guide tells a lot of interesting facts and it’s very impressive to board an authentic mine lift. Baron 1898 in real life!
WORTH A VISIT?
Honestly, this was a fantastic day. Gold Reef City had been at the top of my imaginary theme-parks-I-want-to-visit-list for several years now. This wasn’t only due to the presence of Tower of Terror, but the park just looked wonderful on photos. And the photos didn’t lie: Gold Reef City is indeed a beautiful place. The park gives a well-kept impression and there’s a lot of attention for the park’s mining past. Numerous displays provide information about the former gold mine and the underground tour is unique. Gold Reef City also deserves praise in terms of rides. Thanks to its spectacular roller coasters and flat rides, I mainly consider Gold Reef City as a destination for thrill seekers. Still, the whole family can have a wonderful day here. A (mine-themed) dark ride would make the park even more complete and a water coaster also seems like an ideal addition, but I didn’t miss anything today.
Have you been able to get the Shongololo credit? What’s your opinion on Tower of Terror? Did you experience the Underground Mine Tour? Share your opinion in the comments section at the bottom of this page.