Do you remember the Mayan Mindbender at AstroWorld? I certainly do. It was the park’s first indoor rollercoaster, which was a wonder even back before climate change turned Houston pavements into egg griddles. Installed in 1995 after a stint as Nightmare at Boblo Island, it was a 1,148 ft coaster set in a Mayan pyramid. The line setting was fantastic, too. It wound through a jungle past skeletons in crashed jeeps and was probably the best themed wait outside of Batman: The Escape. Since the closing, the ride has been relocated to Wonderland Park in Amarillo, where it’s called The Hornet and is no longer inside. That means the experience is truly lost to the sands of time.
Or is it?
I got to go to Universal Studios Hollywood for my daughter’s tenth birthday this summer. Visiting the Wizard World was the goal, but I’m not one to let a park pass go to waste so we hit every single ride we could. That’s how we ended up in line for Revenge of the Mummy despite the fact my daughter has never seen the Brendan Fraser films and I haven’t thought about them in more than a decade. It was just getting the most out of our tickets, but it honestly might be the best ride in the park. More than that, everything Mayan Mindbender was trying to do, Revenge of the Mummy does better.
Like the Mindbender, the line set up is pyramid-themed, though obviously Egyptian rather than Mayan. It’s not noticeably better in that regard, but once the ride starts you see what the possibilities are for the ride format.
There are a couple of technical aspects that are important differences. The first was that Mindbender’s primary selling point was a lie. It was billed as rocketing riders through total darkness, but that is not what you got. The pyramid was so shoddy that light peered through dozens of cracks, so your ride was more in dimness than anything else. That let you see the coaster, and once you did that you realized it was pretty mediocre. Better than the Serpent, worse than Excalibur, and probably not worth standing in the ever-present line for.
By contrast, Revenge of the Mummy IS in total darkness for much of it. Masterful, complete darkness that only illuminated exactly what the ride wants you to see when it wants you to see it, and what it wants you to see is amazing. All rides at Universal Studios go full-on in crafting imaginary worlds, but Revenge of the Mummy takes everything Mindbender hinted at and makes them reality. There’s this horrifying section where robotic hands cover the dimly-lit ceiling as they grasp at your hair and water drips so that it feels like grave fluids. At another portion there’s a scene where Omid Djalili’s character is eaten alive by scarab beetles, and the ride blasts air at you so that you feel them crawling on your skin.
But it’s the coaster itself that’s marvelous. Almost twice as long as the Mindbender (the Orlando and Singapore ones are even longer), it has that same instant launch that Greezed Lightnin' did so that you go to top speed nearly instantly. Once the minute-long thrill ride portion is going, there is a headlong rush through the darkness.
It’s interspersed with light-up skeletons wielding cutlasses. Admittedly, this is a little hokey and cartoonish, but it works because the ride is so dark, fast, and intense. They flash too fast for you to get anything but a vague impression of menace. Plus, half of it is run backwards, so you never have a chance to get used to the silliness.
Mayan Mindbender was a rollercoaster that tried to tell a story. Maybe what it did was enough for 14-year-old me, but looking back with adult eyes it was terribly limited in vision. What I saw in Hollywood was how a fairly pedestrian ride could be molded into an adventure that was more memorable than some of the source material. The same way that video games take a first person narrative and make it something transcendental interaction, a well-crafted ride can make a story unforgettable.
There are a lot of reasons to mourn the loss of AstroWorld, but one of them is definitely Houstonians missing the advancement of ride technology since it's gone. It’s not just ups and downs and fast speeds. It’s thrilling escapes and deadly monsters and heroic quests. In a city where we have nearly every kind of art and storytelling apparatus available to us, we’re absent the thrill ride as a narrative.
All that’s left is a shark train with a janky robot at the Downtown Aquarium and memories of haunted jungles leading to a roller coaster you had to close your eyes to believe fully in. Heading out to Universal Studios was fun on its own, but it was also like seeing part of Houston’s heritage and my own childhood remastered. If you ever miss the Mindbender, skip Amarillo and visit any of the Universals while you can catch Revenge of the Mummy. It’s an example of what we could have been.
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