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Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Nineties Wooden Coasters

1980-1990s

1990s WOODEN COASTERS

"This is what our guests have asked us for. We want this coaster to create an incredible experience for our guests...with lots of excitement and plenty of surprises. Our coaster will speed through a thickly wooded area, soar above the trees tops and nearly plunge into the lake - it'll be an incredible ride."

- Will Koch, President of Holiday World (speaking about The Raven)

The wooden roller coaster came back with a vengeance in the 90s thanks to older designers that created some of their best work and new companies that took the helm of wooden coaster design. The rides built today still use many of the same techniques from designers John Miller, John Allen and Herbert Schmeck. The difference is the concept is transfered to a computer to check the designer's calculations against the machines'.

Georgia Cyclone, Six Flags
Six Flags' Georgia Cyclone is based on the layout of the original Coney Island Cyclone. Enlarge Photo

In the start of the decade Curtis Summers opened two of his best roller coasters, Georgia Cyclone and Texas Giant. The Georgia Cyclone is arguably one of the best, in the family of Cyclone clones, that also include the Texas Cyclone, Psyclone at Six Flags Magic Mountain and Viper at Six Flags Great America. When it is running well the airtime this machine delivers is insane and not to be missed. The coaster also gives riders a sense of the wild nature Bill Cobb's Texas Cyclone had when it opened.

The Texas Giant also tops many lists, as it has all of the attributes that people look for in a good wooden coaster. The ride features a 137-foot first drop that reaches a top speed of 62 mph. Unlike so many coasters the first drop is not the best part of the ride. The Texas Giant has some of the most vicious laterals and negative G-force's found on a roller coaster. It is a violent coaster, but not normally a rough one and the ending is something everyone needs to experience for its great, floating airtime.

Thunder Run, Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom
Thunder Run at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom is a favorite with enthusiasts for its abundance of airtime. Enlarge Photo

A year later, Cedar Point (Sandusky, Ohio), a park known for enjoying its position as a place with the biggest rides in every category, debuted Mean Streak.

On paper Mean Streak looked great. It had the tallest drop for a wooden coaster in the United States and was the second longest in the world. In the park, the ride looked even more impressive as Cedar Point left the wood its natural color. The sheer size was awe inspiring, as people waiting in line walked through a massive mountain of wood. All of that awe though quickly changes to pain and boredom once the rider is on board.

Even though Mean Streak and Texas Giant are from the same designer, builder and have the same basic layout, these are the only things they share in common. Mean Streak has been slowed with several trim breaks over its course that makes it a boring ride with only hints of airtime. Even with the reduced speed it is still one of the worst tracking coasters in existence. Why? Part of the problem is the sheer size and height of the ride and another is the Dinn shuffle.

The Dinn shuffle is a phenomenon found on many of the coasters they have built. The shuffle is a sensation where the cars (usually a PTC train) dance all over the track. The company that built many rides in the 1980's and early 1990's, laid their track in such a way that the coaster exerted a lot of energy in going everywhere but straight ahead. This resulted in roller coasters that were unnecessarily rough and violent. Some turned into rides that were downright painful.

It's bizarre how many of Dinn's new roller coasters track so poorly, but it is important to remember that he did some great work on coaster relocations. The work he did on the Phoenix and Wild One was near perfect and stands as a testament that Charlie Dinn did a lot for roller coaster history. Something I have thought of is that perhaps Dinn's techniques worked well on the older coasters and Timber Wolf, because these were traditional, proven building styles. I believe that Dinn should have reevaluated how he put track together when he built wooden coasters on the scale of Mean Streak.

One interesting note is that both Curtis Summers and Charlie Dinn's firms were each sued by Six Flags, Inc. for problems and injuries resulting from the intense rides given by the Texas Giant and Georgia Cyclone. Six Flags won a $1.78 million civil judgment against Summers' firm and $125,000 from Dinn's firm in 1995.

The next year another failure in wooden coaster design opened, again with gigantic proportions. John Pierce's Rattler coaster opened at the new Fiesta Texas amusement park and many said it redefined "intense". The park was built into a quarry, an unusual and beautiful setting for an amusement park. The Rattler also rests on the side of the quarry and dives in and around the canyon walls. Unfortunately, Rattler had several problems, so brakes were added and the first drop was lowered to 124-feet. Today, the Rattler is still beautiful, but tracks roughly because of poor maintenance. Furthermore, Rattler has been reprofiled four times since it debuted to try to correct the many problems it opened with.

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A pivotal roller coaster was built in 1992, but it stands only 55 feet high and is only 2,000 feet long. The Sky Princess at Dutch Wonderland (Pennsylvania) is a small "out and back" wooden coaster with a nice first drop and fun turn around. The coaster is not significant because of the ride itself, but because of who designed and built it. The Sky Princess was a collaboration between two relatively new designers Custom Coasters (CCI) and Mike Boodley, who later formed Great Coasters International.

I must admit when I saw the first ads for Custom Coasters, I was not impressed. During the early 90's I subscribed to the highly irregular "Inside Track" magazine and saw advertising that talked about The Patriot and other small roller coasters that they could build for anyone. I thought to myself, who would want to hire them? I had no idea how wrong I was.

In 1993, The Outlaw opened at Adventureland in Iowa. This coaster stood 70-feet high, had curving drops and sharp turns not seen in wooden roller coasters since the first "Golden Age." The Outlaw generated some interest, as did Indiana Beach's Hoosier Hurricane that was built the following year. Hoosier Hurricane was a traditional boardwalk wooden coaster that nearly skims the water on many drops. It offers some airtime and laterals, and was the first CCI coaster to be built with a steel structure. Both of these rides were fun, but not like the insanity that was on the drawing board to be built Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana.

Holiday World had first considered purchasing the Scream Roller Corkscrew coaster from Worlds of Fun. Instead they decided to purchase a ride that would better fit the feel and terrain of the family playground. To celebrate the park's 15th anniversary, Holiday World contacted Custom Coasters to have a wooden roller coaster designed to compliment the traditional park.

When people first saw the drawings for this new coaster there was some excitement, but no one was blown away by the proposed simple design. A lift of 110-feet, a tunnel, a large turn over the lake and some drops and turns back before returning to the station.

Amusement Business writer Tim O'Brien suggested the name for the coaster, a scary house was built to be the station and the PTC train was delivered. Many believed that a trip to grandmother's house was in store. Instead, The Raven gave an unrelenting flight through the woods at speeds exceeding 60 mph!

Since The Raven's opening, it become an instant favorite among enthusiasts and the general public. The first two drops gave great airtime and the curve over the lake has strong laterals. After a few more up and downs riders hit "the drop", that stood passengers up, as they fly down 65-feet into the woods. After this dive riders are flung this way and that as the coaster speeds back to the station, only to be stopped by the station brakes, and the only ones on the course. The Raven is more insane at night. The course is not just dark, it is pitch black. You cannot see your hand in front of your face as it completes its acrobatics at speeds not thought possible on a medium-sized wooden coaster.

If you have not visited Holiday World then you should add it to your list of "must visit" parks. The park's employees have been voted the friendliest in the world and their annual enthusiast event, Stark Raven Mad, is considered to be one of the best.

The Legend, Holiday World
The Legend is one of two well loved wooden coasters located at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana. Enlarge Photo

According to Paula Werne, the park had such a good time hosting the American Coaster Enthusiasts spring conference in 1995 that they wanted to create an enthusiast event for later in the year. Stark Raven Mad has became a legend with enthusiast because of the park's outstanding wood roller coasters, the park's exceptional employees and for the fact that the park owners themself get involved with the event, even frequently seen dispatching trains.

Holiday World is immaculate, the rides are well taken care of and for the 2000 season they added a second wooden coaster, The Legend, to compliment The Raven.

"We did really well with Raven. We felt confident we could build a real world-class coaster. We discussed it as a family and decided to go for it," said Will Koch, president of Holiday World in regards to the park's decision to build The Legend.

Coaster lovers the world over thanked Holiday World for taking a risk to build another unique, intense and unprecedented ride through the dark woods of Santa Claus, Indiana.

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In 1996, Mike Boodley formed his own roller coaster company Great Coasters International (GCI) and their first project was The Wildcat at Hersheypark. Boodley looked at the coasters of Traver and Prior & Church for inspiration and created a twisted wooden coaster that was a step up from CCI's Outlaw. The Wildcat and Great Coasters subsequent projects, Roar at Six Flags America and Six Flags Marine World and Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa all had twisted layouts that delivered a fun rides with lots of lateral forces and airtime.

Great Coasters took their designs to the next level when Hersheypark hired them to build the Lighting Racer for the 2000 season. Billed as the world's first dueling, racing coaster, Lighting Racer is one-of-a-kind and has unique trains. The ride uses the company's Millennium Flyer trains that are similar in design to Prior and Church cars. The Millennium Flyer's have open fronts, single benches and were articulating allowing the cars to navigate the curvy track.

Lighting Racer had one of the most twisted layouts of any roller coaster today. The ride features a 90-foot lift, top speed of 51 mph, an exciting siphon drop and an area called "Sideswipe Alley" where the trains scream each other. Boodley and his crew at GCI created a coaster that was perfect for all of the park's visitors and is one of the best rides in the east.

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Another park that also holds a one-two wooden punch on the same level as Holiday World is Silverwood Park in Athol, Idaho. For the 1996 season, the park contracted Custom Coasters, to build an "out and back" wooden coaster from the books of John Miller and John Allen named Timber Terror. The ride had no frills, simply a great 85-foot first drop, airtime filled hills, a unique helix and fantastic airtime bunny hops all the way back to the station. Like The Raven, this coaster broke no world records, but provided an airtime filled experience that coaster fans love.

Spurred on by the popularity of Timber Terror, the park again hired CCI to build a wooden twister. Custom Coasters again delivered an amazing roller coaster that proved the old axiom – "Bigger is not necessarily better".

Twisted Sisters, Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom
Twisted Sisters from Custom Coasters was the first dueling wooden coaster in the world and example of the many innovations in wooden designs. Enlarge Photo

Tremors opened in 1999 with "mild" statistics: 90-foot first drop, 3,153-feet of track and four tunnels, one of which goes through a gift shop. It might not have been the tallest, but this twisted ride left riders breathless and kept them out of their seats for much of the ride. Another "thank you" is owed to Silverwood, whose two outstanding wooden coasters, has put Athol, Idaho on the map for roller coaster enthusiats.

Custom Coasters continued to build rides that refined what a wooden coaster could be. One example, Twisted Sisters at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom from Custom Coasters was the world's first dueling wooden coaster.

Another example, Shivering Timbers, debuted in 1998 at Michigan's Adventure (Muskegon, MI). Shivering Timbers is a huge "out and back" ride with three impressive drops, which if separated, could each be a wonderful first drop on a roller coaster.

"The owner influenced us a lot on this ride," explained Denise Dinn-Larrick, owner of Custom Coasters with regards to the thinking behind Shivering Timbers. "He wanted something that had three great first drops and he wanted to go all the way to the end of his property. He wanted something really unique and exciting."

The first drop of Shivering Timbers was 120-feet tall and at an angle of 50 degrees, it gives amazing airtime. A fun turnaround leads to more hills and a helix that is downright vicious on hot days. If you like airtime, then you must take a trip to Michigan.

Some in the amusement industry felt that The Raven was just a fluke, a coincidence where everything fell into place. After all it was built in a unique location that could not be replicated elsewhere. Custom Coasters' 1998 creation, GhostRider, silenced the remaining doubters and established that Custom Coasters had become the new masters of the mid-size wooden roller coaster.

When riders look at GhostRider it is hard to get any idea of the layout because it resembles a pile of lumber with thin sinews of track. It would take hours for me to go through the details of this ride without a picture and pointer, so all I can really say is that it has great laterals, amazing airtime and like The Raven, a hill which many enthusiasts refer to as "the drop".

GhostRider served to show that when building coasters, a small twist on the ideals of classic designers can still create rides that enthusiasts and the general public both love and patronize. Again this mid-sized coaster is very popular with both enthusiasts and the general public alike.

Lance Hart of Screamscape put up the following excerpt from a Knott's press release:

"Since its debut in December 1998, GhostRider has placed near or at the top of virtually every major roller coaster poll, including the 1998 and 1999 Internet Wooden Tracked Roller Coaster Polls and the 1999 Screamscape Ultimate Awards, which ranked it the best coaster in the world."

Coaster lovers who lived through the 1970's and 1980's would have never believed that so many great, mid-sized wooden coasters would spring up in the 1990's. Today, the wooden coaster is seen as a viable alternative for a park, as the initial investment is far less than that of comparable steel coasters. A special thank you to Custom Coasters and Great Coasters International, who have revolutionized what a wooden roller coaster can do and because their coasters have helped give family parks a new lease on life.

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