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Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Eighties

1980-1990s

ENTER THE 80s

"You have to be a little bit mean. Sometimes you have to be a little bit sneaky. You get them going on a nice straight track and they think 'This looks smooth,' and then you dip it down a little to give them a good jolt. Or you have it so that when they go over a hill it looks like they're going to get their heads chopped off at the bottom."

- Bill Cobb, speaking on the design of wooden coasters.

Rule

The seventies had seen a re-birth and new interest growing in the amusement industry, while the next decade ushered in some radical changes in the form of the roller coaster. The suspended, stand-up and the hypercoaster made their debut during the eighties, changing the way people thought about roller coasters forever.

The rejuvenation and renewed interest in the roller coaster allowed designers to start trying new things. The Bat, the first suspended coaster by Arrow Dynamics, opened to the public at King's Island in April 1981.

So what exactly was the suspended coaster?

The Bat, Paramount's Kings Island
The Bat, the world's first suspended roller coaster, failed because of design problems. Enlarge Photo

The Bat featured cars shaped like bats, suspended below the track. They flew around the 2,456-foot circuit and the coaster utilized two lift hills, each almost 100-feet high. But the ride was plagued with many problems that remained with it until it was dismantled after it stood without operating for the 1984 season.

The Bat closed for a number of reasons, but low ridership was not one of them. It reportedly gave an amazing ride that threw riders around the un-banked turns, some of which were near-vertical on hot days. The wicked curves were part of the Bat's problems, as the shock absorbers could not handle the severe pressure placed upon them. Some reports say that they had to be replaced on a weekly basis because they wore down so quickly. Another problem was that Arrow did not change the location of the brake fins from their sit-down coasters. They had always been located on the bottom of their coaster trains, but on the suspended coaster the wheel assemblies had been moved to the track above the car, while the fins remained on the bottom. This caused a lot of wear and tear on the brake fins (and the wheel assemblies) as the fins were awkwardly grabbed by the brake mechanism below and the car lurched to a stop.

The Bat was taken down during the 1984 season not because of a death, as so many rumors still state, but because it was a bad design and was costing the park too much in upkeep.

Small hints of the Bat can still be seen at King's Island. The Vortex, one of Arrow's first mega-loopers, was built on the site in 1987. There are still some concrete footers on the site were not removed. Also, some of the access stairs to the brake run & lift were from the Bat and the station has changed very little since the Vortex was built. [1]

Rail Blazer, Stand-Up Coaster
Six Flags St. Louis marketing the Rail Blazer as a "stand-up" roller coaster in the park's brochure. Enlarge Photo

The Bat was not the only Arrow prototype to suffer through problems. Their stand-up roller coasters debuted in 1983 and 1984 and suffered from many technical difficulties. Both of the stand-ups were two different rides when they first opened. The two coasters were the Rail Blazer at Six Flags Over Mid-America (now Six Flags St. Louis) and the other was the Extremeroller (or EXT) at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. There are not many details about the Rail Blazer (1984) as myth and fact have run together in the minds of many. I do know that one of the trains on the River King Mine Train (the park's racing Arrow Mine Train) were retrofitted with cars that allowed passengers to experience the ride standing up. Unfortunately a woman died in 1984 that caused the ride to be converted back to a sit-down ride. Growing up in St. Louis I heard many explanations, some which said she was too heavy and fell out (which is what a fellow rider also said) and some say she was pushed by her ex-husband. The Six Flags/Ballys Corporation's official statement was that the woman fainted causing her to become loose in her restraints and slip out of them.

The other stand-up was known in its former life as the Screamroller. This ride, a typical Arrow corkscrew opened in 1976. For the 1983 season the park and Arrow converted the coaster into a stand-up ride. The Screamroller's sit down cars were removed and the name was changed to the Extremeroller or EXT. The restraints were much more simple than stand-ups today; they were simply an over the shoulder restraint attached to a support with a spring-loaded pad to keep the rider's knees in. The ride was inexplicably changed back to a sit-down format in June of 1984. However, it was not as a response to the accident at Six Flags St. Louis because that would happen one month later. The name Extremeroller stayed with the coaster until it closed in 1988. The Timber Wolf wooden coaster was put on the same plot of land the following year, but according to www.worldsoffun.org there are still some traces of the EXT left. A concrete footer in the lake and the station are left from the steel coaster, and the reason that the Timber Wolf's cars do not match up exactly with the queue gates is that they were aligned with Arrow trains.

If one ride has left its mark, both literally and figuratively, on the amusement park industry, it is the Vekoma Boomerang. The premise is simple. After boarding in a station, riders were hauled backwards up a lift hill, released, flew through the station, a cobra roll and vertical loop. Then they engaged a second chain lift that was parallel to the first and experienced the entire ride again- backwards. The first boomerang was installed at Reino Aventura in 1982 and hit the states two years later as the Sea Serpent at Mariner's Landing in Wildwood, New Jersey. According to an Inside Track interview this was how the ride was developed:

"Jac Houben tells the story of how he came up with the idea for Vekoma's most popular ride to date. He was vacationing on a beach one afternoon when he noticed a woman lying on her back nearby, flat on her back, feet flat on the beach, with her knees up in the air. The position triggered a thought in his mind about a new coaster. What if a coaster had track on two parallel support structures? What if the train could come down one side and end up on the other, then let gravity take over and repeat the process backward? The following Monday morning he pitched the ideas to Vekoma's design engineers, and soon after, the Boomerang was born." [2]
Boomerang, Knott's Berry Farm
The six-inversion Boomerang shuttle coaster at Knott's Berry Farm replaced the venerable Corkscrew in 1990. Enlarge Photo

There is much controversy within the coaster community about the quality and necessity of the boomerang. This author has always felt that the ride is great if the right parks used it. Kentucky Kingdom acquired the Vampire as one of their first coasters. It worked well because it did not cost much, took up a small footprint and allowed the park to have a steel looping coaster. Lake Compounce is another example of a smaller park that benefits from having a "modern" coaster along with two great wooden coasters.

Unfortunately some larger chains, notably Six Flags and Cedar Fair, felt the need to install boomerangs in parks that shouldn't have them, such as Six Flags New England, Six Flags Over Texas and Worlds of Fun. It is a bad decision because it lessens the notoriety of the boomerang and allows a huge theme park, which could put a better ride in to skimp and still say they put a steel coaster in their park.

For many years Vekoma did not build their own cars and used Arrow rolling stock instead. 1997 was the first year that the company put their own trains on their rides, Zoomerang at Lake Compounce and Boomerang: Coast to Coaster at The Great Escape. Although similar to the Arrow trains, the Vekoma coaches had rounded bodies.

According to some riders, the Moonsault Scramble was the first coaster to break 200 feet. The coaster was designed by Meisho for the Fujikyu Highlands in Japan. The height of the coaster was 207 feet, but it is a boomerang-style ride, not a full-circuit coaster. This means that the train is hauled backwards up the first tower, sent through a pretzel element, up another tower and then did the entire course backwards. Many say it is debatable whether-or-not this coaster broke the 200-foot barrier because the last car is the only one that was pulled above that height. The park is worth a stop if you are ever in Japan as they have both the Moonsault Scramble and Fujiyama, a 260 foot-tall Togo hypercoaster that was the tallest coaster in the world for several years before it was beat out by Goliath.

The ride that would have been one of the most thrilling and well-built suspended coasters must go down as one of the great "what-ifs" of roller coaster lore. It was called the "Flying Coaster," designed by the legendary Anton Schwarzkopf and was expected to be installed in Busch Gardens Williamsburg for the 1984 season.

Big Bad Wolf, Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Conceptual artwork showing the Big Bad Wolf "suspended" roller coaster at Busch Gardens. Enlarge Photo

Busch had gotten exactly the kind of coaster it wanted in Schwarzkopf's Scorpion at their Tampa park and were happy with the Glissade (a Jumbo Jet) at Williamsburg. They felt he would be the one who could build a new style of thrill machine for them. His plans called for a train that consisted of two rocket-shaped cars that held fourteen passengers each and utilized lapbars to hold the passengers in. Michael Patenburg, of Schwarzkopf Coaster Net, says that this ride was created first as a prototype, but was only 75% finished. Schwarzkopf's company closed during the 1983 season due to several financial problems coming to fruition at the same time. Busch Gardens scrambled to find someone to design the coaster and came across Arrow Dynamics. (Ironically they would be in a similar position eight years later when creating Drachen Fire, but with different results).

Arrow had corrected the major problems the Bat had faced and were confident they could deliver a well-designed suspended coaster. The curves were now heavily banked, the brake fins were moved up near the wheel assemblies and a guide wheel had taken their place at the bottom of the car. The Big Bad Wolf opened in 1984 to rave reviews and is still considered one of the best suspended coasters ever built. It ascends a lift hill, careens through a reproduction of a German village, ascends another lift and finishes beautifully as it swings wildly over the same body of water occupied by the Loch Ness Monster. The only downside of the Big Bad Wolf is that it features Over The Shoulder Restraints, a characteristic Arrow would unnecessarily add to all of their suspended coasters.

Top Gun, Paramount's Kings Island
Top Gun is Arrow Dynamics' second generation suspended coaster design that came after its first failed attempt. Enlarge Photo

XLR-8 another Arrow suspended coaster opened the same year at Astroworld. Even though the two coasters had the same manufacturer, very few suspended coasters can be put in the same class as the Big Bad Wolf. Some say that the reason that the coaster is so good is because Schwarzkopf's company laid the footers. This is a possibility because Anton's company was still operating in 1983 and roller coaster negotiations happen so far in advance. The Big Bad Wolf is a near-perfect suspended coaster, so it is a safe bet that the ghost of Anton's genius is the special "umph" that makes this coaster so great.

After helping rekindle America's love for amusement parks in the 1970's the wooden coaster stagnated in the 1980's. Very few wooden coasters of note were built during this time, but there is one which will forever be regarded as one of the most devilishly fun coasters built, the Cyclone at Riverside Park (Six Flags New England) in Agawam, Massachusetts.

I could not find many sources that talk in-depth about the Cyclone, so I have pulled most of these facts from memory and conversations. I first saw the Riverside Cyclone in an article in Popular Mechanics by George Plimpton. The picture in the magazine showed what looked like a fun ride, but the author described it as one of the most frightening coasters he had been on – Of course, I had to find out more.

Cyclone, Six Flags New England
Bill Cobb's Cyclone roller coaster at Riverside Park, now Six Flags New England. Enlarge Photo

The Cyclone was 3,600 feet long and featured a 54-degree first drop that became a turn before the drop was completed. The coaster as a whole was quite intense and did not let up until it got back to the station. Bill Cobb's coaster was very unique in that it goes from fast to slow, and back, several times throughout the course. It was a twisting layout that featured abrupt changes of speed and direction. Cobb had an interesting anecdote about the design process of the Cyclone. He said, "I just woke up with indigestion and dreamed that one up," appropriate inspiration for this twisted creation if I have ever heard one.

We can thank Six Flags, as they replaced the old Morgan trains with new ones from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. The reports are that the ride is still good, violent fun and making the course several seconds quicker. Sadly, the park was not willing to pay for the additional maintenance the new trains required and took the easy way out and re-profiled the ride's first drop for the 2001 season. The Cyclone was one of the few coasters left which provide a link to the machines created by Harry Traver and Prior & Church. One has to think, if the Cyclone is this intense, what were those rides really like?

Two years later the Phoenix rose at Knoebels Grove in Pennsylvania. This was the first successful move of a wooden roller coaster in over fifty-five years and was a collaboration between park owner Dick Knoebel, designer John Pierce and Charlie Dinn. (To find out more about the ride itself see the Philadelphia Toboggan Company section.) Wild World, now Six Flags America, followed suit and in 1986 moved the Giant Coaster from Paragon Park in Massachusetts.

It originally opened in 1917 and was designed by John Miller. It was re-profiled by Herb Schmeck in 1932 and altered by Charlie Dinn when it was moved in 1986. Dinn re-built the helix that had been lost to a fire while the ride operated at Paragon Park. John F. Pierce altered the ride again in 1992 and Six Flags took a butcher knife to it in 1999. The old PTC cars with single-locking lapbars where removed, another train was added, and both now have individual ratcheting lapbars. In addition, the park took some of the ride's "bite" out and re-profiled the once-vicious turn around.

1984 was not only the year of the suspended coaster, but also the time that another innovation in roller coaster technology appeared - the stand-up coaster. The King Cobra opened to crowds at King's Island and gave a new type of thrill people had been contemplating for a long time. TOGO corporation designed, and King's Island Engineering Corporation built a stand-up roller coaster that featured one loop and a double out and back layout. Standing 95 feet high and 2210 long high it changed the way people thought about coasters and what they could do. Even today, when Bolliger and Mabillard stand-ups offer many inversions, this TOGO ride is still quite intense. Kings Island's sister parks got their own TOGO coasters with near-identical designs at Canada's Wonderland in 1985 and King's Dominion in 1986. As King's Island advertised the year the coaster opened, "Can you stand it?" The park removed the ride shortly before the 2002 season. It is unknown at this time if the ride will be erected someplace else.

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1. Some of these details were taken from members.iquest.net/~davel. It was a wonderful site and one of the few sources that talks about the ill-fated Bat.

2. Inside Track magazine, November 1992.