Turning the coaster experience upside down
Today’s park-goers are more likely to ask how many loops a coaster contains rather than if it goes upside down at all. Yet until it wasn’t until the 1970s and the start of The Rollercoaster Renaissance that guests became fully acclimatised to any kind of inversion in their coaster-riding experiences. Paul Ruben traces the history of looping coasters. Hold tight!
This Is Cinerama, the first wide-screen motion picture, debuted in 1952. Three projectors were used with three overlapping screens that filled your peripheral vision. For many, the highlight of the film was the opening scene of a ride on the Atom Smasher, a 70-foot-high coaster at now-defunct Rockaway Playland on New York’s Long Island. A camera had been mounted on the front of the first car, and the point-of-view footage made you feel like you were actually aboard the coaster.
Soon after This Is Cinerama appeared, Rockaway Playland began to promote the Atom Smasher as “The Cinerama Coaster.” It’s a good example of how parks try to differentiate their coasters from others, to establish some distinct bragging rights. Bragging rights are almost as old as coasters themselves. More than a century ago, and long before the invention of radar guns to verify speed, ride operators claimed their coasters went 100 mph. Hyperbole has a rich tradition in the outdoor amusement industry.
The Rollercoaster Renaissance
In recent years the best way to claim bragging rights is to set a new world record. With so many different styles and types of coasters operating today, it’s not unusual to find a new claim to the tallest, fastest, longest or wildest coaster of a particular type, at least for one season. Coasters are the perfect marketing tools. They are easy to explain to the public, and everyone is challenged to visit and sample the newest thrill. Over and over again, a new coaster has boosted park attendance by so much that it has paid for itself within one to two years.
The Rollercoaster Renaissance began in 1972 with the appearance of the Racer at Kings Island near Cincinnati, Ohio. The pursuit of bragging rights began to heat up in California soon after, when in 1975 Knott’s Berry Farm unveiled the Corkscrew and in 1976 when Magic Mountain introduced the first modern looping coaster, The Great American Revolution (now simply Revolution).
This quest for bragging rights, or The Roller Coaster Arms Race as it is sometimes called, is best embodied by the steady progression of taller coasters, faster coasters or the frequent increase in the number of loops, fuelled by the public’s perversion for diversion by inversions. Going upside-down is fun. In the 32 years since the appearance of the first modern looping coaster, 418 have appeared around the world, together containing 1241 inversions, with more planned in 2008. But since The Roller Coaster Arms Race hasn’t seen an increase in the number of inversions claimed for an individual coaster since 2002, this is a good time to trace the evolution of record-setting looping coasters.
People have enjoyed going upside-down every since the first Cro-Magnon child discovered the somersault. The looping rollercoaster, however, first successfully appeared in 1846 at the Frascati Gardens in Paris when an engineer named Clavieres introduced the Chemin du Centrifuge, or Centrifugal Railway. A single rider rolled down a 30ft-tall hill at a reported speed reaching 150mph (actually less than 30mph), through a 13ft-diameter loop, and up an incline. In the meantime, his partner passed the hat before onlookers who were amazed and amused to see someone, in their minds, defy gravity. Similar rides opened elsewhere in France but were not popular and were soon abandoned.
The concept of a looping coaster was revived in 1895 when Lina Beecher’s Flip Flap opened at Sea Lion Park in Coney Island, New York, quickly followed by the Topsy Turvy at London’s Crystal Palace. Two riders would roll down a hill into a 25ft-tall circular loop. The problem, however, was that, without the invention of shoulder harnesses and locking under-wheels, the force required to keep riders in their seats and the car on the track going through such a small loop was so severe than many people suffered neck and back strain.
In 1901 Edwin Prescott unveiled Coney Island’s second looping coaster, the Loop-the-Loop. It was notable because it featured twin elliptically shaped loops which reduced the forces on the riders, but only four people at a time could ride, or 48 per hour. Although several other looping coasters appeared in locations such as Fountain Ferry Park in Louisville, Kentucky, and Olenatangy Park in Columbus, Ohio, because of low capacity none were profitable and all had disappeared by 1915.
Steel & Twisted
Three events subsequently rekindled interest in looping coasters. First, Walt Disney opened Disneyland, Anaheim, California, in 1955, introducing the concept of a theme park, followed by Angus Wynne’s decision to open Six Flags Over Texas, Arlington, Texas, the first regional theme park, in 1961. The subsequent emergence of theme parks, replacing rapidly disappearing traditional amusement parks, created a market for new rollercoasters of all types.
The second event was the invention of tubular steel track, which had the strength to support a full train of riders through a loop. This meant that low hourly capacity was no longer a concern. Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon of Arrow Development proposed tubular steel track for the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which opened at Disneyland in 1959.
Finally, the circular or elliptical loop of early looping coasters was replaced by a clothoid curve, or inverted teardrop shaped loop. First described by Swiss mathematician Leonard Eurler, its shape reduced the physical strain on riders. Circular loops require greater entry speeds to complete the loop, subjecting riders to greater centripetal acceleration through the lower half of the loop, or greater g-forces. In a clothoid loop the radius is reduced at the top so that centripetal acceleration is increased, keeping the train from slowing too much as it moves through the loop. The bottom half of the loop has a large radius, thus reducing centripetal acceleration and the g-forces.
Riders in the modern era were first turned upside-down on the Corkscrew, opened in 1975 at Knott’s Berry Farm. Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon of Arrow Development designed it. The idea for a corkscrew rather than a vertical loop was Bacon’s. “It would be kind of jazzy,” he once recalled, “having a helix spiral that they would go through. That’s also how we came up with the name of the coaster.” The 70ft-tall, 1,250ft-long Corkscrew featured two twisting spiral inversions. Its appearance also turned the amusement industry upside-down as the quest for thrills accelerated. A second Corkscrew appeared that year on the East Coast at the now-defunct Magic Harbor, Surfside Beach, South Carolina.
It was America’s bicentennial, 1976, when the first modern vertical looping coaster, aptly named The Great American Revolution, appeared at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, California. The result of collaboration between Intamin, Anton Schwarzkopf and Werner Stengel, its appearance created a sensation. The 112ft-tall coaster carried riders along 3,657ft of track, through one vertical loop, and then threaded the needle through the loop. It was featured in the 1977 film, Rollercoaster and National Lampoon’s Vacation in 1983. Most recently, and perhaps most appropriately, it served as the backdrop to a commercial for Pepto-Bismol. Today, Six Flags Magic Mountain features eight coasters that turn riders upside-down a total of 35 times, by far the most at any park in the world.
By the end of 1976 a total of seven more inverting coasters had opened, including Corkscrews at Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida, Great America parks in Gurnee, Illinois, and Santa Clara, California, Old Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, and Worlds of Fun, Kansas City, Missouri. The first launched shuttle coaster from Anton Schwarzkopf, King Kobra, opened at Kings Dominion, Doswell, Virginia.
The Roller Coaster Arms Race was just beginning to gather momentum because 1976 also witnessed the introduction of the first three-inversion coaster, the Corkscrew at Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio. Arrow Development had modified its original Corkscrew design by raising the height to 85ft, lengthening the layout to 2,050ft, and adding a vertical loop. The Corkscrew straddled the park’s midway, and remains a park icon today.
Beginning with Cedar Point’s Corkscrew, today at least 135 three-inversion coasters exist. This includes 45 of the popular Vekoma Boomerang shuttle coasters, conceived by Jac Houben. He recalls that during a break in a business trip to Diverland in Venezuela, “I was laying on the beach when I got the idea. I was thinking how I might make a coaster for half the price and double the fun that will meet a realistic ride time and capacity. Later in the morning it came to me. Use the track twice for half the cost, and let the train run both forwards and backwards to provide optimum fun.”
Because of its compact size and unobstructed sight lines, Houben’s version provided a spectacle to even those with an aversion to inversion. The first Boomerang was sold in 1982 to Reino Aventura (now Six Flags Mexico), Mexico City, but was not erected until late in 1984. According to Houben, it was Bellewaerde Park in Belgium operated the first Boomerang, also in 1984, followed weeks later by Boomerangs at New Jersey’s Mariner’s Landing, La Ronde in Montreal, Canada, then Reino Aventura. For our purposes, Boomerangs are considered three-inversion coasters despite the fact riders are turned upside-down six times during the ride.
A total of 17 looping coasters graced the landscape by 1977. Notable was the introduction of the first two-vertical-loop coaster, the Double Loop, at Geauga Lake, Aurora, Ohio, and the second Intamin-Schwarzkopf single looper, the Sooperdooperlooper at Hersheypark, Hershey, Pennsylvania. Arrow’s first shuttle loop coasters appeared, the Zoom-erang at Circus World in Haines City, Florida, and Black Widow at Riverside Park, Agawam, Massachusetts. Each stood 56 feet tall with 635ft of track.
Set over the Rhine River in Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Virginia, the Loch Ness Monster threatened guests for the first time in 1978. This 3,240ft-long, 130ft high coaster for the first time introduced two interlocking vertical loops. Two Intamin double loopers appeared, the 130ft-tall Shockwave at Six Flags Over Texas and 115ft Mindbender at Six Flags Over Georgia in Atlanta. Eight other Corkscrew and shuttle loop coaster also opened that year.
Four inversions first appeared in 1980, at four different parks. Perhaps most significantly, Arrow introduced the double barrel roll element described as the kamikaze, batwing or boomerang on the Orient Express at Worlds of Fun, Kansas City, Missouri. This double inversion was combined with two interlocking vertical loops to turn riders head-over-heels four times. Both Great America parks modified their original Turn of the Century Corkscrews by raising the height to 95ft, lengthening them to 2,300ft, adding two vertical loops, painting them black, and re-theming each as Demon. Arrow built the Carolina Cyclone, a double loop and corkscrew coaster, at Carowinds, Charlotte, North Carolina. Today we count 50 four-loop coasters scattered around the world.
The Arrow-built Viper at Darien Lake, Darien Center, New York, pioneered five inversions in 1982. This 121-foot coaster includes a vertical loop, a boomerang, and a corkscrew in its 3,100-foot layout, finishing the ride through a partially subterranean horizontal spiral. Following the example set by Viper, 62 five-inversion coasters operate today.
If five inversions are good, six must be better. At least that was the thinking at Kings Island when the Vortex was introduced in 1987. Built by Arrow to a height of 148ft, it carries riders through 3,800ft of twisted track, including two vertical loops, an elevated corkscrew and a two-inversion batwing. The world’s first six-inversion coaster has inspired 10 other parks to build coasters with six inversions.
Seven inversions followed swiftly, the next year in fact, when Great America in Gurnee introduced Shockwave in 1988. Built by Arrow Dynamics, it was then the tallest (170ft) and fastest (65mph) coaster in the world. Over its 3,900ft length it had three vertical loops followed by a double batwing roll and ending with a double corkscrew. Shockwave closed in 2002, but 12 other seven inversion coasters continue to operate worldwide.
Each escalation of The Roller Coaster Arms Race, from one through seven loops, occurred first in the United States. But after a flurry of seven-loop coasters appeared, American parks stepped aside as venues in other nations picked up the challenge.
It was just a matter of time before eight inversions would appear. The year was 1995 when Dragon Khan opened at Port Aventura in Salou, Spain. This massive coaster is 4,165ft long and 148ft tall with a 161ft difference in elevation as it drops down a hillside. Built by Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M), riders are towed to the top of the lift hill and are then dropped into a 118ft-tall vertical loop at speeds exceeding 65 mph, followed by a dive loop, a zero-G roll, and a two-inversion cobra roll. This is followed by a plunge into a second vertical loop, then two interlocking corkscrews before re-entering the Chinese-themed station.
Since the appearance of B&M’s Dragon Khan, Intamin has built three eight-inversion coasters. These include Monte Makaya in 1998 at Terra Encantada in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Avalancha in 2002 at Xetulul, Retalhuleu, Guatemala, and Flight of the Phoenix in 2006 at Phoenix Gardens, Ningbo, China. These all begin with a loop followed by a double cobra roll, double corkscrew, and a delightful triple heartline spiral roll taken at moderate speed.
There are no nine-inversion coasters, which brings us to 10, the current standard for coaster dementia. Thorpe Park, Surrey, England, chose to enter The Roller Coaster Arms Race in 2002 when it unveiled Colossus. This coaster is all about inversions, not speed. To appease the planning authorities, the layout is a modest 98ft tall and 2,788ft long, but in that length Intamin managed to fit a vertical loop, a double cobra roll, double corkscrew, four heartline rolls in a row, and then finish a fifth heartline roll. A similar coaster, cleverly called 10 Inversion Roller Coaster, opened in 2006 at Chime Long Paradise, Guangzhou, China.
What does the future hold? We can extrapolate from the recent past, where we saw the appearance of seven inversions in 1988, eight in 1995, and 10 in 2002. These events were spaced in seven-year intervals, so when it comes to loops we should expect the next escalation of The Roller Coaster Arms Race in 2009. Remember, going upside-down is fun. Will you be ready?
The original version of this article – with many more pictures – was published in the Spring 2007 edition of Rollercoaster! from the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) and the Novemember and December 2006/January 2007 issues of Park World