Editor's note– The Starliner was sold and relocated to Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida where it re-opened on July 14, 2007. After only a year of operation the Starliner closed on November 16, 2008. Merlin Entertainment eventually purchased the shuttered park and reopened it as LEGOLAND® Florida, but the Starliner was dismantled, placed in storage and likely will never be ridden again.
Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach will be closing its doors forever on Sunday, September 5, 2004. This article is a tribute to the park and the end-of-an-era for another of John Allen's creations and one of Florida's few wooden roller coasters.
For its reputation as one of America's premiere vacation destinations Florida has had very few wooden roller coasters. Busch Gardens' Gwazi and the Dania Beach Hurricane at Boomers! are recent additions, but these coasters built by Great Coasters International and Coasterworks respectively, are far away from the traditional beach amusement areas found along the state's sunny Gulf Shores that run east west. Panama City's Petticoat Junction Tornado stopped rolling in 1984 and the Funway Amusement Park Comet in Fort Walton Beach closed five years later, leaving Miracle Strip's Starliner as Florida's only seaside Gulf Coast wooden roller coaster.
Panama City has seemingly been written off by many families because of the many spring break students found in the area every Spring, but the city holds a jewel of an amusement park only one block from the ocean named Miracle Strip. While planning their park back in 1963 the owners realized that the most successful parks require a roller coaster. So, they contacted John Allen at the Philadelphia Toboggan Company to design an "Out and Back" wooden roller coaster.
The Miracle Strip Starliner was Allen's third major roller coaster he built for PTC and his seventh overall. In 1960, Allen designed the Skyliner for Roseland Park, since relocated to Lakemont Park. Two years later he built another wooden coaster for Wedgewood Park. Ironically, the coaster for Wedgewood Park would later become the roller coaster that operated only a few miles from Miracle Strip at Petticoat Junction.
Miracle Strip Amusement Park, built on a rectangular piece of land, needed a roller coaster that provided thrills on only a small footprint. Allen's answer was a traditional out and back design, a first for him. The return track was built very close to the first half of the course and the turn around was the only part that required a sizeable amount of space.
According to roller coaster historian Torrence V. Jenkins, Jr., Allen utilized a small, banked fan turn to accomplish the turn around, but it failed to give the ride experience he hoped for. Frank Hoover supervised construction of the roller coaster and it opened with the park in the spring of 1963. The Starliner was a perfect fit for Miracle Strip and ran along the park's eastern edge.
Visiting Miracle Strip in Spring 2001 I was surprised to find a beautiful traditional amusement park existing in the spring break world of Panama City Beach. After passing through the main gates you find a collection of traditional amusement park rides.
Aside from attractions like a Zierer Wave Swinger and an Eyerly Loop-o-Plane there are several enclosed attractions. The park featured an Eli Bridge Scrambler called the Abominable Snowman, a Sellner Tilt-a-Whirl called the Dungeon and a Chance Trabant called Dante's Inferno; all of which are run in-the-dark with outstanding lighting packages. Of course, the real treasure at Miracle Strip is the Starliner roller coaster that can be seen from anywhere in the park.
Stepping under the colorful sign the line leads to the beautiful curved station, reminiscent of several Herb Schmeck coasters like Canobie Lake's Yankee Cannonball. On the way up the ramp there is a Philadelphia Toboggan Company plaque that announced to all that the Starliner is indeed a product of the legendary amusement firm.
The trains are classic three bench PTC rolling stock with single-locking lapbars, no headrests, one seatbelt for each pair of riders and seat dividers. The Starliner still operates with manual skid brakes and when the operated released the brake the train rolled out of the station. The train picks up some speed before you approach the lift. Rising in the spring air listening to the familiar clatter of the anti-rollback device you ascend 70 feet before cresting the lift hill.
The ride begins with a 65-foot first drop which leads to a series of hills very similar to Allen's 1976 Screamin' Eagle roller coaster. The first drop is followed by a shallow speed hill and a third drop that was nearly as tall as the first. At the bottom of the third hill you enter a tunnel painted like a campy dragon's mouth and riders are caught off-guard as the train catches some air (negative G-forces) on a hidden bunny hop before the track rises into the turn-around. You can tell that the turn-around is not what Allen wanted because it feels more like a ramp than a hill and delivers little airtime or laterals.
Leaving the turn around the coaster pops up over a nice bunny hop as it entered the return leg of the trip. This part of the ride was a series of signature John Allen bunny hops each with plenty of airtime for the whole family to enjoy. As the train flew into the brake shed a light and bell went off in the front of the station, as the operators applied the skid brakes that slowed the Starliner train to a stop.
The Starliner remains in good condition and serves as a fine example of John Allen's early work before he began building larger "Out and Back" roller coasters in the 70's that would become his signature ride. If you happen to pass through Panama City before the end of this summer be sure to stop by Miracle Strip Amusement Park and say goodbye by taking one final ride on the Starliner roller coaster.
Type of Coaster:
Wood Out and Back
John Allen and the Philadelphia Toboggan Co.
Height: 70 feet
First Drop: 65 feet
Top Speed: 55 mph
Length: 2,640 feet
ACE Coaster Classic
2 – PTC 28-passenger trains
Winter Haven, Florida
Miracle Strip Amusement Park
Panama City Beach, Florida