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Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Late Eighties

1980-1990s

LATE 1980s

From 1985 to 1990 the innovations and development went ahead full steam in the steel coaster arena, but wooden coasters suffered from a lack of originality and interest during this time. For Anton Schwarzkopf 1986 was a year of ups and downs. He built one of the best coasters of his career and suffered heartache as one of his rides killed three people.

Zonga, Six Flags Marine World
One of Schwarzkopf's most impressive looping coasters was moved to Six Flags Marine World in 2003 where it operates today. Enlarge Photo

The Thriller, owned by Oscar Bruch & Sohn, opened in 1986 on the German fair circuit. The Thriller is one of those coasters that was as exciting to ride as it was to look at. The first drop was 112-feet at 85-degrees, but from the train the first drop appears to fall straight down. The trains flew into two near circular loops that stood next to each other, not in line like most coasters. After more tight curves and extreme drops the train heads through two more inversions, one a stretched-out corkscrew. The ride reportedly pulls the most G's (6.5) of any coaster. In fact, some of the fairs had the back seat roped off because the g's were too much for riders to experience. It was purchased by Six Flags, moved to Astroworld in 1998 and renamed the Texas Tornado (originally called Taz's Texas Tornado, but the Taz was dropped for the 1999 season). After the 2002 season the Texas Tornado was dismantled and sent to Six Flags Marine World (Vallejo, CA) where opened for the 2003 under the name Zonga.

The bad part of the year came when one of the worst coaster accidents in recent history occurred on the Mindbender in June 1986. The Mindbender coaster opened a year earlier at Fantasyland (now named Galaxyland), an indoor amusement park inside the Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada. It was based on Schwarzkopf's Drier Looping design, stood 145-feet high, and had a drop of 126 feet that twisted into three powerful loops and many intense curves. On tragic day of June 14th, the wheel assembly of the last car sheered off as it came into the third loop and the last car crashed into a concrete pillar, smashing the train like an accordion below. The company that owned the mall said that the trains Schwarzkopf provided were faulty and caused the death, but according to Schwarzkopf Coaster Net author Michael Patenburg, the mall owners did several things wrong:

- The mall did not follow a government order to physically check the cars, they only used visual inspections.

- Because of the hands-off approach the mall used, several of the bolts were loose when the trains began operation, so it was only a matter of time before an accident occurred.

- The operations manual was never translated from German to English.

Unfortunately, roller coaster accidents do happen, but if the parks and in most cases the riders do what is expected of them, then most accidents can be avoided. Many people still blame Schwarzkopf for the accident and it is important that the record be set straight to reflect the truth.

First time visitors to Six Flags Astroworld are not sure what to think when they see the Ultra Twister roller coaster for the first time. The Twister opened in 1987 at Six Flags Great Adventure to the amazement of many. When it debuted, it had one of the steepest drops in existence at 89 degrees. The trains could not turn, so a single car, holding six passengers ascended the lift, dropped, went through a barrel roll and was stopped by a set of brakes. First-time passengers wonder what happened, but as the track was lowered they understood. The brake block dropped, connected with a lower track and the train was released backwards into two more barrel rolls. In 1990 the coaster was moved to Astroworld as part of the Six Flags ride rotation program.

Many people said that Astroworld was a bad park because it is full of coasters from other Six Flags parks. However, these are not ordinary coasters. Besides Togo's Ultra Twister & Bill Cobb's Texas Cyclone, the park featured three Schwarzkopf coasters. One was the single-looping Viper, a standard Schwarzkopf Looping Star. But, the Texas Tornado and the Greezed' Lighting (a shuttle loop) are two coasters considered to be some of the best in their class. An added bonus is the fact that Greezed' Lighting and the Viper still used lapbars, just as Herr Achterbahn intended.

Sadly, a few accidents occurred on at Six Flags parks in the 1980's. In 1987 a woman was killed on the Lightin' Loops shuttle coaster. The operator did not check all of the restraints and the passenger fell out and was killed. Six Flags Astroworld was also sued by the family of Cesar Gonzalez, a 16 year-old boy who said he suffered a blood clot in his head that caused partial paralysis during a ride on the Texas Cyclone. The boy's attorney's argued that because the Cyclone featured forces which were much greater than the forces found on most wooden coasters, so the cars used by the Cyclone should give the riders more neck and shoulder support. The park settled out of court for $2,500,000. They added new "coffin cars" from Morgan Manufacturing. These high-backed cars were trimmed down for the 2002 season and many reports said that the ride was running the best it had in years.[1]

Vortex, Paramount's Kings Island
The Vortex at Paramount's Kings Island features six inversions and spured a new race among parks and designers to build taller and faster coasters. Enlarge Photo

Vortex, Paramount's Kings Island
The sun sets behind The Vortex, one of Arrow Dynamics early multielement looping coasters. Enlarge Photo

If one company dominated the steel coaster industry during the late 1980's, it was Arrow Dynamics. They built many rides during this period, which would be their last time at the forefront of the roller coaster business. In 1987 Arrow introduced the first of their "mega-loopers," the Vortex at King's Island. It opened with a 157-foot drop, two loops, two corkscrews and a boomerang. This ride was made in part to help make up for the dramatic failure of The Bat, but Arrow had no idea it would help start a quest for height that continues to this day.

The following year Six Flags Great America's Shockwave was built. It stood 170-feet high, featured a 155-foot curving first drop, went through a loop, a curve, a pair of vertical loops, the mid-course brakes, a boomerang and two corkscrews. This basic design, although modified slightly, remained roughly the same for the next two large Arrow coaster's to be built at Six Flags parks.

The next year, Six Flags and Arrow opened the Great American Scream Machine at Six Flags Great Adventure and the fangs of the Viper rose up 188 feet under the hot California sun in 1990. All three of these coasters were impressive and still give a good ride today. The real story surrounding Arrow at the time though was the monster that was released upon the people of Sandusky Ohio, Magnum XL-200. Crowds gasped when they looked up for the first time at the crest of a lift that stood 205-feet tall and seemingly dropped its riders into neighboring Lake Erie.

Great American Scream Machine, Six Flags Great Adventure
The train on the Great American Scream Machine will go upside down seven times through its course. Enlarge Photo

The Magnum XL-200 changed all of the rules for a steel coaster. Instead of loops and corkscrews it had two large drops, an amazing turn-around and a series of bunny hills. Instead of head banging it featured airtime, instead of over the shoulder restraints it had lapbars. The Magnum broke all the rules for a steel coaster and was a big gamble for the time. Essentially, the ride was a large steel coaster that followed a wooden out and back layout. Today, 200-feet appears to be only average for many steel coasters. But, in 1989 it was thought almost unthinkable. Many a designer, John Allen and others included, said that they would never build a coaster over 120-feet, let alone 200.

It is interesting to note that during Magnum's first season it ran with upstop plates under the trains, much like the other large Arrow steel at the park, the Gemini. Upstop wheels replaced these plates the following season. This is one of those instances where you shake your head and wonder, "What were they thinking?!" Ron Toomer created lots of great coasters, but engineers had to wonder what was going on when they built the cars as if they were running on a mine train, not a 200-foot monster.[2]

Even today, when the Magnum is dwarfed in its own park by the 300-foot Millennium Force, it still holds a special place in many an enthusiasts' heart. This coaster was one of those few who changed roller coaster history forever...little did we know another steel coaster which would change the world was three inverted years away.

1989 also saw an average-sized wooden coaster bring a new sort of thrills to the country. The Timber Wolf did not have a huge drop (95-feet), unchecked speed (53 mph), or a long length (4,230-feet). Yet, there was something special about this coaster. Although it won an award by Inside Track readers, the coaster has never been recognized as anything that shaped the coaster world. This ride is one that paved the way for the great wooden revival that occurred in the 1990's under great designers like Custom Coasters International and Great Coasters International, Inc. The location and airtime make it a great coaster, but not too extreme for the family crowd Worlds of Fun and Cedar Fair cater to. This was one of the earlier[3] mid-size wooden coasters that provided a smooth yet thrilling ride. In a time period where the bigger-is-better attitude prevailed (Hercules debuted the same year, Mean Streak and Rattler shortly thereafter), the Timber Wolf gave a hint of the wooden revival that occurred in the next decade.

The eighties helped to set the stage for the 1990's. During this decade we broke the 200-foot level, stood up and rode below the track. However, this was just the beginning as the next decade saw a growth on an exponential level many never thought possible.

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1. I searched for information on this accident, but could find very few places which talked about it in detail. The best source I found was an article written by Bill Childs for rollercoaster.com.

2. A special thanks to fellow roller coaster historian Jay Ducharme for pointing this bizarre fact out to me.

3. Earlier referring to the second "golden age" of coasters.