Scream Machines Forever
Monarches have been crowned with less fanfare than that attending the unveiling of Ohio's Kings Island's newest roller coaster, the aptly-named Flight of Fear. But, according to those in the know, future "scream machines" will deliver even more challenging rides -- and even more hype. "They're more popular now than they've ever been," adds Mark Wyatt, editor of Inside Track Magazine, a publication that covers the amusement park industry. "Fifty new roller coasters will open this year," says Wyatt, "half in North America. That's a lot of coasters!" Which, no doubt, is why all of these new rides will open during what has officially been designated The International Year of the Coaster.Though coasters are becoming increasingly more expensive to design and build, amusement park managers are willing to spend the money. Cedar Point expects to recoup a $12 million investment in its new Mantis roller coaster in just one season, based on projected attendance increases and related merchandise sales. In 1989, the park's newly-opened Magnum coaster helped increase attendance by 18 percent.HIGH SCHOOL PHYSICS, BIG TIME THRILLSCoasters trace their ancestry as far back as 17th century Russia, when folks rode sleds down ice covered "mountains" (actually giant wooden platforms). By 1804, people in Paris were enthralled with a ride called, appropriately, The Russian Mountains -- a carriage riding on an inclined path. Reports of accidents actually increased its popularity.In 1870, an abandoned coal train in Mount Chunk, Pennsylvania, was turned into an amusement ride with cars heading down the nine-mile stretch of track at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour. Unlike it's French counterpart, the Mount Chunk ride had a flawless safety record and it continued in operation until 1939.The first true roller coaster, however, was built in 1884, the year LaMarcus A. Thompson received a patent for his "switchback railway" and debuted his creation at Coney Island, New York. It was an unqualified hit.By the 1920's coasters were going up everywhere. As many as 2,000 were built during the decade and, with designers trying to outdo each other, some bordered on the dangerous. Others, though, added new improved safety devices such as lap bars, braking systems and under-track wheels (which helped secure the train by placing wheels under the track, perpendicular to the coaster car's wheels).Coasters from that era still operate in our region today. The Big Dipper (1926) at Geauga Lake in Aurora, Ohio, The Racer (1927) and The Jack Rabbit (1921) at Pittsburgh's Kennywood Park all were designed and built by the Babe Ruth of the coaster industry, John Miller. Coasters are getting taller and faster every year, but these classic rides still thrill park visitors some seventy years after their construction."They're just beautiful things," says contemporary roller coaster designer Ron Toomer. Working for the past thirty years at Arrow Dynamics Inc. in Clearfield, Utah, Toomer has designed over a hundred "scream machines," eighty-seven of which are still operating in amusement parks around the world.There is a lot of psycho-babble about why coasters are so appealing (shrinks love to tell us how we love to be scared, seek danger, etc.) but the simple truth is that most coaster riders simply get off on experiencing elemental forces of nature at work.It essentially boils down to raw speed and gravity, or G-forces. Amusement rides offer the same sensations astronauts experience as they are being carried into orbit, and can be characterized using the same Right Stuff jargon. "Negative Gs," for instance, refers to the feeling that you're being lifted out of your seat as you descend a coaster's hill (you are, by the way). Lateral Gs, another example of the coaster's tendency to produce forces that fly in the face of gravity, move you from side to side on a coaster's turn. Coasters also work with Ma Nature to exert the "positive Gs" you feel coming up a hill or into a loop. If, for instance, the force pushing you down into your seat is three Gs, it is equal to three times your body weight. It may sound complicated and it may give you the thrill of your life but, to coaster engineers, it's elementary."It's high school physics, really," says Toomer.TOTALLY LOOPEDRoller coasters were designed with increasingly higher drops and sharper turns. Eventually steel was incorporated into the construction, first in the track, then in the superstructure. Traditional wooden coaster rails are attached to a stack of five to seven wooden slats. Tubular steel coasters, like those pioneered by Arrow Dynamics, have round steel rails. The cars are attached to the track with one polyurethane wheel above the track and one below, an innovation that made the coaster ride more smoothly. It also lead to even louder screams from riders.In the early '70s, the designers at Arrow wondered what would happen if they coiled the track. The answer to that question was a new generation of coasters that took white-knuckled riders roaring through corkscrews and upside-down through loops. On rides such as Cedar Point's Corkscrew (1978) and Kings Island's Vortex (1987), which takes riders upside-down six times. "We learned quite a bit between [Vortex] and our next [multi-looping coaster] at Gurnee, Illinois," says Toomer, the most important lesson being to space the upside-down parts of the ride further apart. "We learn something new with each one," he adds.Despite the booming popularity of taller, faster steel coasters, wooden scream machines are still a hit with many even though they tend to have a much rougher ride. Wooden coasters, in fact, have to shake and sway slightly. If they didn't, they would break up. The creaking, and rattling you hear riding The Beast or The Racer is the train expending energy through the lumber in the superstructure. All that bouncing around you feel is simply physics at work.MICKEY MOUSE TO THE RESCUEMany of the scream machines from the '20s, the wooden coasters golden age, are gone of course, as are the parks they resided in, victims of either the economic pressures of the Depression or the subsequent demographic shifts following World War II. By the 1950's amusement parks had waned significantly in popularity. Cedar Point, a premier resort and amusement park during the first half of the century, was almost falling apart.It was Walt Disney who helped give amusement parks a new direction with his vision of creating a park the whole family could enjoy. Disney envisioned concept-based rides inspired by his studio's movies and cartoons. In 1955, Disneyland opened and its instant success prompted other parks to modernize and adopt new ideas. Some soon found a niche that Disney was not covering.Disneyland had no "thrill" rides. All of its offerings, though popular and entertaining, were tame and safe. Disney parks, in fact, would not have a true roller coaster until 1975, when Space Mountain opened at Disney World in Florida. Before that, the Arrow-designed Matterhorn, built in 1959, was as close as Disney came.In 1964, Cedar Point introduced Blue Streak, designed by John Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Still in operation, Blue Streak was recently designated a classic coaster by the American Coaster Enthusiasts). But while Cedar Point began to emerge from the lean times, smaller parks like Cleveland's Euclid Beach Park and Palisades park in New Jersey continued to close. Constant spring floods almost drove Cincinnati's Coney Island out of business and, when Taft Communications purchased the park in the late '60s moved the operation twenty miles north of the city and reopened it in 1972 as Kings Island.As larger parks began attracting more people, interest in roller coasters was renewed. In 1969, Cedar Point installed Ron Toomer's new coaster called The Cedar Creek Mine Ride. It was similar to Toomer's very first design, the popular Runaway Mine Ride, which opened at Six Flag's Over Texas in 1965. Though it sat on a wooden super structure, the Mine Ride rode on steel rails. King's Island's Adventure Express, which opened in 1991, is a sister coaster to these rides.Coasters like Cedar Point's Corkscrew marked the beginning of the era in which roller coaster has become the amusement park's premier attraction, as TV watchers learned. Geauga Lake TV ads featured jingles about their Corkscrew and Double Loop Coasters. Kennywood was dubbed "The Roller Coaster Capital." Cedar Point consistently promoted its newest coasters.It was at this time that Kings Island, bucking the trend of steel looping coasters, opened The Beast, billed as the world's tallest, longest and fastest wooden roller coaster. It is still the park's signature ride, and its 7,400 feet of track make it the longest coaster to this day.The Beast was conceived and built by Kings Island itself rather than being designed by an outside firm like Arrow or Philadelphia Toboggan. Famed roller coaster designer Charles Dinn, who had worked for Toboggan, headed the Kings Island team. Dinn had also worked for old Coney Island, and subsequently became construction manager at Kings Island, supervising the installation there of the John Allen-designed Racer.Following his tenure at Kings Island, Dinn got into the business of moving idle wooden coasters to other parks. Eventually, he teamed up with structural engineer Curtis Summers to design some of America's most awesome "woodies." Wolf Bobs (1988) at Geauga Lake is a fine example of their work, as is Cedar Point's stupendous Mean Streak (1991). The Beast, however, is arguably the country's premier wooden roller coaster.Almost on its own, The Beast reversed a decline in the wooden coaster's popularity. Thunderbolt (1968) at Kennywood, continued to excite riders even though it was far from being the tallest or fastest coaster. Today, it too is considered a classic. Redesigned from a coaster called Pippin (1924), another John Miller design. Thunderbolt's 90-foot final drop and big positive Gs make it a rougher ride than the parks other wooden coasters, The Racer and Jack Rabbit. Jack Rabbit derives its name from the simulated "jump" riders experience as they streak down two tiered drops and it remains a very popular ride at the suburban Pittsburgh park. Other parks also saw older coasters, such as Big Dipper at Geauga Lake, regain a measure of their former popularity."Big Dipper is so classic," says Tim Baldwin, events coordinator for ACE. "It's thrills are timeless." As the name implies, Big Dipper is a hilly coaster that serves up lots of negative Gs.Alternating positive and negative G's are the signature elements of wooden coaster rides and they are emphasized in The Beast and Thunderbolt's contemporary counterpart Mean Streak, opened in 1991 at Cedar Point. It was the last coaster constructed by the team of Dinn and Summers; Curtis Summers died exactly one year after Mean Streak's opening.At just over 5,400 feet, Mean Streak is not as long as The Beast, but it is taller (161 ft. vs. 135 ft.) and has a steeper drop (52 degrees vs. 45 degrees) than its older sister. Streak's most heart stopping features are the high banking turns that, at 65-mph, give the illusion that the train is going to jump off the track.Shortly after Mean Steak finished it's first season, Charles Dinn retired but his daughter, Denise Dinn Larrick carried on the family tradition. Her company, Custom Coasters International (CCI), has built over a dozen coasters since being formed in 1991. Three CCI coasters will open this year in the US, and two others debut in Europe. As this article goes to press, the CCI team, including Charles Dinn, were off to Spain to oversee one of the openings.OK, IT IS ROCKET SCIENCEA smooth ride, the ability to turn riders upside-down and at higher speeds than their wooden counterparts are all characteristics of the steel coasters, the kind in which Ron Toomer and the engineers at Arrow Dynamics specialize. Arrow, in fact, built many of the rides for Disneyland in the mid-50s, before venturing into coasters in 1965. Surprisingly, until Toomer joined Arrow that year, he had never been on a roller coaster. "Never rode on one before," he confesses. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to design coasters, but in Toomer's case it didn't hurt."I'm a mechanical engineer," he says. "I was working in the aerospace industry at the time and I was involved in solid rockets. A guy that worked for us (and Arrow) was telling me about (rides). And it sounded like the greatest thing you could do was build amusement rides. And...all of a sudden they came up and needed someone to start on this first runaway train."Although Toomer did start riding coasters after he began to design them, the charm, for him, continues to be primarily conceptual."I don't ride them anymore," Toomer says. "I've ridden enough of them. It's kind of strange, but I don't really like them that much in terms of riding them."Toomer's creations are some of the most popular coasters in the world, including Magnum XL-200, recently voted the top steel coaster in America by the members of the National Amusement Park Historical Association."That's a high-speed ride all the way, that thing is," notes Toomer. With a vertical drop of 195 feet, it is still one of the tallest coasters in the world seven years after its first ride.When Cedar Point decided to add a new scream machine for the 1989 season, they demanded it be the tallest and fastest coaster available -- and look like it. That's why there are no side supports on the coaster's superstructure. The design of the cars also adds to the effect. Riding higher on their chassis than the average coaster, the cars hide the track from the passengers' view. At the bottom of the first hill, Magnum hits a top speed of 72-mph and hits a high banking "double pretzel" series of turns. But unlike other Arrow coasters, it never goes upside-down."I think the trend is...more people wanting just that experience," Toomer explains. "I think with the upside-down thing, we've almost over done that." Indeed another Toomer design, Kennywood's Steel Phantom, features only one loop and one corkscrew. It's main feature is it's 225-feet second drop that sends riders down a hillside and through the superstructure of Thunderbolt. Reaching a speed of just over 80-mph, Steel Phantom comes up off the hillside and into a loop, followed by a series of turns and a corkscrew. Then there is the ride's first drop, banking sharply to the right as it drops. It's a feature that has been used on several Arrow coasters."The first time I saw that [banked right-hand drop] was on an old wood coaster, 20 years ago," Toomer recalls. "It wasn't operating, and I thought 'gee, that looks like a lot of fun to do one of those things.'" Practical fun, as it turns out."The reason that's put in, from my standpoint, is that we don't have room to go out and do this straight down thing. It takes up a lot of space, like Magnum (which) has a 1,000 foot straight piece of track including the lift and the drop hill. Those things are exciting anyway," Toomer adds, "a ride with a curve and drop."After designing several inverted or looping coasters in the mid to late 70s, Arrow came up with another breakthrough -- the suspended coaster. Instead of riding on top of rails, the suspended coaster hangs from the track, simulating flight. Top Gun (1993), at Kings Island, is an example of Arrow's second generation of this type of coaster. The first generation, was another KI coaster called The Bat.The Bat was to be Kings Island's next star attraction when it opened in 1980. It was an extremely popular ride, but frequent mechanical failures kept the innovative coaster grounded for weeks at a time. In July of 1983, for example, the Bat sat idle with a cracked wheel. While a replacement part was sent from California, then Arrow's headquarters, the park assured the media that the ride would be working again soon. After the 1983 season, however, The Bat was dismantled and the Vortex was eventually erected on the same site."I was involved in (The Bat) too unfortunately," says Toomer. "I think, looking back at The Bat, it was under-engineered in terms of lack of understanding of some of the forces we were seeing. It ran good and was quite exciting," Toomer continues, "but material problems, failure of steel parts, stuff like that (forced it to cease operation). It was a bad part of our history. I don't like to think about it."The Bat taught Arrow many lessons, which it applied in the subsequent design of nine suspended coasters, all of which are still in operation. Besides Top Gun, the list includes Cedar Point's Iron Dragon, built in 1987 and somewhat slower than its Kings Island relative."Those have been fine," adds Toomer. "We got things straightened out." Though some say Top Gun is a little overrated, it is an excellent ride in the front seat, with oodles of positive Gs. Unlike other Arrow creations, however, neither Top Gun or any of the firm's other suspended coasters contain inversions.It was the Swiss duo of Walter Bolliger and Claude Mabillard that would turn suspended coasters, well, upside-down. Bursting on to the scene in 1990 with a stand-up coaster similar to KI's Japanese-designed King Cobra. In 1992, B&M first flipped riders of a suspended coaster around the outside of a loop and, in 1994, Cedar Point built such a coaster and named it Raptor.In addition to its looping ability, Raptor differs in several ways from previous suspended coasters. Riders sit four across, with their legs dangling down, similar to a ski lift. This differs from the Arrow design in which riders are seated in the cars.While B&M has moved toward four-across seating on all of its coasters, Ron Toomer still seats his riders in pairs, so each passenger can look down at the disappearing ground.Raptor was the first inverted coaster to feature a "cobra" roll, which turns the train upside-down twice in sort of a dented loop. It is a fast (57-mph) and smooth ride, from the 137-foot first drop to the helix that finishes the journey. It rivals Gemini as the park's most popular ride, but for the Raptor faithful, it's no contest.For the 1996 season, Cedar Point again called on B&M to build another record-breaking scream machine. They responded with Mantis.Mantis is the tallest, steepest and fastest stand-up roller coaster in the world. Though it has only four inversions, Mantis is surprisingly unsettling.Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you're standing as you go through its many twists and turns. For an extra thrill, you'll want to make sure you stand on the coaster's right-hand side because, as you reach the top of the lift, the coaster dips slightly to the right, curves and then drops. During the dip, you look straight down into the lagoon. It's breathtaking.DUTCH TREAT AND THE MAN OF STEELAnother new entry in the coaster lineup is Mind Eraser at Geauga Lake. Built by Dutch company Vekoma, Mind Eraser is different in that it does not complete a circuit. Instead, you're pulled backwards out of the station and up an incline. Then, the train is released and heads back through the loading area, into a cobra roll followed by a loop. Heading up another incline, the train climbs as though it were a conventional coaster. But suddenly, without warning or pause, you're released and head backwards through the loop, the cobra roll and then back into the station. It's like being on a standard coaster, where something has gone horribly wrong. Very exhilarating.Vekoma also designs complete-circuit coasters, including suspended ones which leave riders dangling from their seats. But, unlike B&M, the Vekoma design seats two across.In the never-ending search for the ultimate roller coaster, a new generation of machines will premiere in North America this summer. Superman: The Escape (designed by another Swiss firm, Inatmin) will open at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California. In Ohio, Outer Limits: Flight Of Fear, designed by the Italian company S&MC in conjunction with Maryland based Premiere rides, will open at Kings Island. Instead of relying on a high drop and the forces of gravity and inertia, both of these rides use linear induction motors, driven by mutually repelling magnetic fields, to attain their high speeds. Outer Limits will propel riders to a speed of 53-mph in 4 seconds before sending them through twists, turns and four loops. The entire experience takes place indoors, similar to Space Mountain. An identical ride will also open this summer at Paramount's Kings Dominion in Virginia.Superman, on the other hand, accelerates from 0 to 100 mph in 7 seconds, sending riders up a 415-foot track and then straight back down. At one point, Superman renders riders weightless for 6 seconds. Are there any limits as to how far designers ultimately can go?"I used to think there was," Ron Toomer laughs, "ten years ago. But I don't anymore. I think we can go as high and as fast as anyone would want to go." Coaster designers will merely have to add a few amenities."I think as we go faster and faster, we're going to have to put windshields on and things like that," says Toomer. "We're getting to the point now where you get hit by a bee or something, it can be pretty bad." Regardless of what coaster designers come up with next, area parks seem determined to bring us the latest breakthroughs."Between Kings Island, Cedar Point, Geagua Lake and Kennywood, you have the strongest concentration of coasters [in the country]," says ACE's Time Baldwin. "Whenever I'm helping someone plan a coaster vacation (Ohio and western Pennsylvania) is where I send them."