It says something about the scope and quality of its existing attractions that Europa-Park hasn’t felt the need to add a looping rollercoaster until now. But finally, the German park near Freiburg has relented and installed a ride with a loop …and a launch. In the process the European-themed park has also added a new country for guests to explore. Owen Ralph visits Iceland.
Amid the volcanic rocks, fishermen’s houses and wooden facades of the new area, a web of blue steel appears on the horizon. Blue Fire Megacoaster is its name and like many other attractions at Europa-Park it was constructed by Mack Rides in nearby Waldkirch.
As part of both the park and the manufacturer’s founding family, Michael Mack has played a significant role in conception and realisation of the new coaster. Responsible for strategic business development and park operations at Europa-Park, he is also a Mack Rides director.
According to Michael, there are a few reasons why it has taken so long to produce a looping coaster. “For many years, Mack was seen as a manufacturer of travelling rides, and then water rides,” he notes. “Now the technology has changed, our production methods have changed, and the crowd in the park has changed; it is a little bit younger. All these are reasons why now was the right time to do a ride with a loop.”
The launch element, however, had been at the back of Michael’s mind for several years. In that time, several other manufacturers have come to the market with launched coasters. This has given Mack Rides time to consider which system would best suit the needs of the park.
“Most rides on the market are hydraulic or pneumatic launches,” observes Michael. “We wanted to be the first to build a launch coaster with LSM [linear synchronous motors]. Hydraulic systems were messy, the oil could get too hot, with LSM there is no contact because we are using magnets, so it requires less maintenance too. A few manufacturers have now used this technique, but I can’t think of many that have done an LSM launch with a train (rather than individual cars).”
The system used by Mack was developed in Munich by magnetic brake specialist InTraSys and provides an acceleration of 0-100km/h in 2.5 seconds. Nevertheless, “the launch itself is not aggressive,” says Michael, much like the loop that follows: “If you remember the old loops, they were like a circle and not so nice to ride, this is more like an egg, it’s much smoother.”
To reach the new ride, guests must make their way to Iceland via the Portugal or Scandinavia themed sections of the park. When they arrive in the new area they are greeted by volcanic rocks and other theming reminiscent of Europe’s most northerly country. “We chose Iceland before they had the banking crisis,” smiles Michael. “We thought it would be a good fit next to Norway and the other Scandinavian countries represented in the park; it was just logical. We hope there will be one or two more rides there eventually.”
Together with Portugal, home to the Atlantica SuperSplash water coaster, Iceland represents a whole portion of the park that simply didn’t exist just a few years ago. The new country is the latest of 13 themed areas and represents part of a 15-hectare expansion announced last summer which, when complete, will increase the size of the park by almost 20% from its existing 70-hectares.
But there’s something understated about Blue Fire and the theming around it, as you’d expect from Iceland. The new area also includes a souvenir store, fashion boutique and 160-seater Icelandic coffee house. Behind the hut-like exterior of the coaster’s station building is some additional theming and a dark ride segment visible only to those brave enough try the new attraction.
On leaving the loading bay, the train travels through an “energy mine” as dummies appear to process the power needed for the launch sequence. P&P Projects from the Netherlands was responsible for these scenic elements. Passengers then enter a straight tunnelled section, smoke surrounds the space in front of them, a siren sounds and the doors part to reveal the 80-metre launch run ahead.
The train is then catapulted with the force of an erupting volcano into a 40-metre-high horseshoe, down into a tunnel and out into the loop. This is followed by several more sharp turns, inversions and a block brake section roughly half-way through, the view from which (see above) compensates for the lack of any lift hill. An inline roll towards the end of the ride is the most challenging and intense of the four head-over-heel sections.
Many of the twists and turns are possible thanks to the chassis underneath each car, first developed by Mack for its YoungStar (Pegasus) coaster: “If you look at the coasters my grandfather used to build, such as the Mine Train, they had two axles per car,” details Michael Mack. “We changed that so that only the first car has two axles. All the additional cars have just one axle so the train can do more banked curves and is freer in movement.”
Lasting around 3 minutes and 20 seconds, Blue Fire features just over one kilometre of track, about a third less than the original 1,600-metre layout proposed, but enough to set it apart from similar rides.
“Many launch coasters are great for the launch but not for the coaster experience,” observes Michael, “you do the launch and the ride is over. I think Blue Fire is more of a coaster than some of the others on the market. You have a little bit of everything, a smooth start, which is perfect for our guests, a bit of time to breath and relax, and of course the upside down elements.”
Other than the shrieks from riders as the they leave the launch, Blue Fire is a remarkably quiet coaster due in part surely to some solid foundation work (the ground hardly seems to shake as the train races past).
This smooth yet exhilarating ride has been built to appeal to a wide range of Europa-Park guests, even if they not all of them realise it: “I have been stood close to the ride and heard people say they are scared to go on because of the looping,” reveals Michael, “but really it is a family ride. You are sitting in a very comfortable seat, it could be your living room chair, you have your arms, your legs and your shoulders free, yet you never feel un-secure.”
Up to five 20-seater trains are used at any one time, providing a theoretical hourly capacity of up 1,720 riders – or a massive 20,000 a day. A waist-level restraint system allows those as young as seven, or 1.3 metres tall, to ride.
Those passengers that cling to the bars in front of them – rather than raising their hands in the air – have their pulse rate measured. This information is combined with video footage shot during the ride and offered on DVD at the exit. This technology was developed in-house by Mack Rides and, though it had yet to be perfected at the time of writing, will eventually be offered to other parks, regardless of ride or manufacturer.
Once again Europa-Park has provided the launch pad and testing ground for another new Mack ride. After a considerable amount of research, the company now feels confident to offer a launch coaster, a looping coaster or a combination of the two to any other venue that wants one.
“We have proved that we can do it, and I am really happy with the results at Europa-Park,” says Michael Mack. “Opening so new many things at once – the coaster, the new area of the park and now the DVD system, it has been a challenge. We thought one or two pieces might take a little longer, but I am pleased it was not the coaster!”
Both Iceland and Blue Fire opened punctually at the start of the season, and the video system in expected to go into operation any day now. Also added at the park for 2009 are Sammy’s Great Adventure (a new 4D film), several new shows and parades, an exhibition dedicated to 75 years of the Mercedes Silver Arrow and a 1.6km access road created as part of the resort’s ongoing expansion. Europa-Park also continues to strengthen its hospitality and “confertainment” offering with several improvements to its hotel and lodging facilities and the completion of the Berlin ballroom.
“The Easter period for us was excellent,” concludes Michael, “one of the best season starts ever. The lowest number I think we had so far in the park is 15,000. In an economic crisis people choose to stay closer to home and I think we are getting more local families now staying with us overnight. People know nowadays that Europa-Park is more than a day trip.”
“No one really expected Mack to a launch coaster,” admits Michael Mack. The Mack Rides director adds that it was several years before the Waldkirch manufacturer felt confident to go ahead with Blue Fire.
It was similar apprehension that led Europa-Park to contract B&M to build Silver Star, its 73-metre-high mega coaster added in 2002. “We were actually thinking of doing that ourselves at Mack Rides, but it was not the right time.” As such, Silver Star remains the park’s one coaster (out of 10) that is not built by Mack.
What prompted the breakthrough with Blue Fire was the firm’s co-operation with InTraSys of Munich on the magnetic braking system for its Pegasus (YoungStar) family coaster, installed at Europa-Park three seasons ago. Mack then approached InTraSys to supply the LSM system for Blue Fire and so saved itself a lot of development time and cost.
“The knowledge is there on the market,” concedes Michael, “what we did was bring together a lot of different elements to make the ride work and reliable for us to operate. We designed open seats with a new restraint system, we did two stress calculations (one for the track and one for the foundations), we changed the acceleration technique, and we take the power directly from the network. We calculate that we need just over 1 megawatt for a launch, that’s really energy efficient.”