Suspended coasters – a retrospective
Riding a suspended or inverted rollercoaster, one in which the rider is seated in a vehicle that hangs from track above rather than below the train, always feels a bit like flying. No track or visible support below enhances the excitement of a coaster ride. As a result park guests have come to enjoy these varieties of rollercoaster, which have grown in popularity in recent years. For a fast and thrilling experience, says Paul Ruben, it all depends on the angle of the dangle.
Today there are over 120 suspended and inverted roller coasters operating around the world, with at least nine more opening in 2008. Of those rides so far, 26 are suspended coasters, those that are free to swing beneath the track, and 96 are inverted, or fixed rigidly to their overhead wheel carriages.
Many believe the suspense of suspended rollercoasters began with the introduction of the Bat from Arrow Dynamics at Kings Island, outside Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1981, or with the appearance of the menacing Big Bad Wolf at Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1984. Inverted coasters, meanwhile, were pioneered by Bolliger & Mabillard, beginning in 1992 with Batman The Ride at Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Illinois. But suspend this belief; suspended coasters are actually more than 100 years old.
The first design of a track-above coaster, one in which a lone rider dangled from a single overhead rail, was patented in 1894 by Arthur Witschold of New York City. His US patent, number 525,882, describes a “gravity railway in which a suspended carriage descends upon a spirally curved inclined rail.” The passenger was expected to walk up a set of winding stairs that surrounds the centre post to the top of the approximately 25ft-tall ride while carrying a folded seat. Once at the top they were then expected to hook the twin rollers at the top of the seat onto the overhead rail, position themselves, then “gradually descend the inclined spiral rail.” It’s not clear that this ride was ever built, but it was certainly conceived before the era of liability insurance.
Witschold’s patent was followed in 1897 by one from George W Downey of Washington DC. The Downey patent, number 592,648, describes a pleasure railway consisting of two inclined parallel rails arranged in an oval layout. On top of the rails is one or more grooved 5ft diameter “carrying balls.” From each ball hung a four-passenger “pleasure chair.” The ball would roll through the oval layout with the seated riders below. Because the pleasure chair hung from a single cable and the seats were either before or after the point of suspension, the greatest thrill would most likely come from an unbalanced load.
Variations on these patents quickly followed. They include number 634,660 issued in 1899 to Henry O and Adolph W Moritz for a suspended “gravity coaster,” number 637,773 issued in 1899 to Henry Funk for a “pleasure railway,” and number 687,370 issued to Johnson R Douglas for a “scenic railway” that included track alternatives both above and below a variety of ride vehicles. None were ever built.
The first commercially successful suspended rollercoaster was Bisby’s Spiral Airship. Although there are references to it operating in 1902 it is unlikely since the patent for this “inclined railway,” number 955,217, was not granted until 1910 to Albert F and Alvin T Smith of Long Beach, California. It is believed to have operated on the Pacific Ocean shore in Long Beach from 1910 to 1930. Individual cages carrying up to four riders hung from a single overhead rail. They were towed to the top of an 80ft onion-shaped tower, then released to spiral downward eight times before returning to the loading area.
All these early attempts at suspended coasters were remarkably different from modern coasters because they had no undulating hills (except for Moritz and Moritz, which had four); the inclined rails provided a descent at a constant angle.
The first modern suspended coaster, Alpenflug (Alps Flight), appeared at the Munich Oktoberfest in 1975, a year later than planned because of development delays. Built by the aviation company MBB (Messerschmitt Bolköw Blohm), and designed by Anton Schwarzkopf and Werner Stengel, it was operated at Oktoberfest by German showman Max Zierer Jnr. Each Alps Flight train consisted of six four-passenger cars, free to swing side-to-side beneath the track as the train rounded the curves of the layout. Unfortunately, because of cost, the swooping curves were not banked as recommended by Schwarzkopf and Stengel. This resulted in unusually high forces and structural problems. The ride was abandoned after just a few weeks.
My own first encounter with a suspended coaster was in 1980 when I visited the Mountain View, California, headquarters of Arrow Development Corp, to get a glimpse of future amusement rides. At the time I was writing an article for Amusement Park Journal, an historically significant but now defunct magazine. Peter Gacs, then Arrow’s vice-president of engineering, took me to the back lot and there stood the still-secret Suspended Coaster. It was to be similar to company’s corkscrew and loop coasters except that four-passenger “people pods” hung from the overhead track and were free to swing sideways like a pendulum, responding to the forces generated by the ride. At the time it seemed like a ski resort chair lift running on coaster track. Gacs explained that this effort was concerned with successfully running the “people pods” through a corkscrew.
In January 1981 Huss Manufacturing bought Arrow Development and Klaus Huss appointed Dana Morgan as president. Peter Gacs then departed and Ron Toomer, in his words, “got hung with the suspended coaster. Karl Bacon and I had worked on the spiral (corkscrew), and the scale model worked beautifully. I remember when we tested the full sized unit we replaced the gondola with 4-inch square boards attached to a wooden platform which we then weighted with sandbags. We started it up. As it went through the spiral the platform broke off and flew into the adjacent building.” Oh, well.
Although this version of the ride was ultimately unsuccessful, Arrow’s ride without the corkscrew opened the next year as the Bat at Kings Island. But the Bat was problematic from day one. “Although it didn’t have banked track it would have worked,” Toomer recalls, “but the chassis, including the axle, axle assembly and wheel carriers, wouldn’t hold up. They weren’t strong enough to withstand the forces on the curves. Banking would have helped.”
No shock absorbers on the swing caused it to be very violent, resulting in excessive stress on the track. Once the track was strengthened the forces were transferred to other structural elements, and there were vibrations in the gondolas. The Bat was a reliable ride when operated only on weekends, but there was excessive (33%) downtime during daily operation. This irregular operation caused guest dissatisfaction, so by the end of the 1984 season the ride was abandoned and demolished, and the loading station was re-used for the Vortex, the world’s first six-inversion coaster from Arrow.
Learning from their experiences with the Bat, Arrow fixed the problems on future models and in 1984 delivered the very tame XLR-8 (accelerate, get it?) to Six Flags AstroWorld, Houston, Texas. Slow speeds and gentle spiral turns marked the ride experience. But that same year, following the bankruptcy of Anton Schwarzkopf, Arrow took over Schwarzkopf’s project and built the Big Bad Wolf for Busch Gardens Europe, Williamsburg, Virginia. It continues to be a favourite of park visitors to this day. Arrow’s Vortex, installed in 1991 at Canada’s Wonderland outside Toronto, is marked by high speeds and wild turns. It is perhaps the most thrilling of the suspended coasters.
Under a licence agreement with Arrow, in 1987 Vekoma introduced Air Race, a suspended coaster with the gondolas themed as airplanes, at Bobbejaanland, Lichtaart, Belgium. “The only modification we did differently than Arrow was the anti-rollback system,” remembers Vekoma’s Jacques Houben. “This suspended coaster was done especially for a family park. Coaster enthusiasts did not like the ride because it was not fast enough in their opinion. It was the only one we built.” The ride has since been fitted with new floorless trains and renamed Dreamcatcher.
Sling the Swing
With the introduction of The Bat, Arrow abandoned its idea of sending a suspended coaster through a corkscrew. But the idea of a suspended coaster train going upside down was not dead. In a dramatic comic-book themed introduction in 1992, Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Illinois, unveiled Batman The Ride, the first inverted rollercoaster from Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M), and the one that ignited the current popularity of inverted coasters. Walter Bolliger and Claude Mabillard, as described in their patent number 5,272,984 issued in 1993, claimed a “means to seat a passenger rigidly affixed to (the overhead wheel assembly) so as to avoid any pendulum-like movement…” In the floorless seating of Batman The Ride, guests were seated four in a row and turned upside-down five times during the course of the ride.
When it opened Walter Bolliger said that the design of Batman The Ride was a challenging task. “The first problem was the compartment for the passengers. Since there is no floor, we had to be very precise with the design of the riders’ restraint system. We also had to be very careful with the design of the forces acting on the passenger, being certain that they are always pushing the passenger into the seat.” Once the ride operated Bolliger expressed his immediate satisfaction. “It’s exactly what we imagined.”
Larry Cochran, then president and CEO of Six Flags Theme Parks, was so pleased with the new ride he revealed that his company had already ordered another. “We don’t know where we’re going to put it yet, but there will be another Batman the Ride at a Six Flags Park in 1993.”
In fact, the next Batman The Ride opened at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey in 1993, followed by eight clones in Six Flags and other parks in the years to come. B&M has now built 28 inverted coasters in parks worldwide, including the world’s tallest inverted coaster, the towering 195ft-tall Alpengeist at Busch Gardens Europe, Williamsburg, Virginia. In the tradition of Cedar Point’s six-inversion Raptor, each and every one gives riders the opportunity to “kick the sky.”
Vekoma introduced its version of an inverted coaster in 1984 with El Condor at Walibi World, Biddinghuizen, The Netherlands. So as not to be confused with B&M’s inverted coasters, Vekoma referred to its ride a Suspended Looping Coaster (SLC), but in fact they do not swing. Riders were seated two in a row and turned upside-down five times. Vekoma is now the most prolific provider of inverted coasters. The company has delivered 35 SLCs around the world. Similar-looking versions of the ride by rival manufacturers in China have not been without their problems. Vekoma has now also introduced nine Suspended Family Coasters that do not invert the riders, plus three Inverted Boomerang coasters and four Giant Inverted Boomerangs.
Intamin has delivered four inverted Impulse Coasters featuring a U-shaped track layout, and three continuous circuit inverted coasters. One of the continuous circuit coasters is Volcano, The Blast Coaster, at Kings Dominion outside Richmond. It uses an electro-magnetic slingshot to accelerate riders to 70 mph, making it the world’s fastest inverted coaster.
German showman Oscar Bruch hired Werner Stengel to design and Intamin to manage the development of Eurostar, the €14 million giant inverted coaster that has travelled the German fair circuit since 1994. Towering 99ft in the air, the purple monster carries riders to speeds of 50 mph over 2,769ft of track while turning them upside-down three times.
Italian manufacturers Pinfari, Ride Tek, Fabbri and SBF are among other suppliers of inverted coasters.
Meanwhile, there continues to be a increasing number of suppliers of suspended coasters, those coaster vehicles not rigidly affixed to their overhead wheel assemblies. French manufacturer Reverchon, for example, built two Gliding Coasters for travelling showmen in Europe in the late ‘90s.
The manufacturer Caripro built installations with a single car for two people, called the Bat Flyer. These include the Clone Zone at Milky Way Adventure Park in Devon, England, Vleermuis at Plopsaland, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium, and Batflyer at Nasu Highland Park, Nasu Tochigi, Japan, and Hamanako Pal Pai, Shizuoka, Japan.
Setpoint introduced the two-seat Pteranaodon Flyers, a jurassic-themed suspended coaster, at Universal Studios Island of Adventure, Orlando, Florida. It followed with the four-seat water bomb-equipped Roller Soaker at Hersheypark, Hershey, Pennsylvania, and others.
In 2006, Mack delivered a powered suspended coaster, called a Flying Powered Coaster, to Restless Planet at Dubailand. Pencilled to open at the end of 2010, the cars have footrests so riders will not lose their sandals. Kite sails heva also been added as a theming element.
Josef Wiegand built Hexenbesen in 2007 for Rodelparadies Wasserkuppe, Gersfeld, Germany. Zamperla delivered Turbulencia to Parque de Atracciones de Madrid in Spain, and the ski lift specialist Doppelmayr supplied Walibi Belgium with Vertigo.
Premier Rides has just built its first suspended coaster, Slippery When Wet, for Hard Rock Park, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Due to open any day no, it features individual cars carrying four passengers in two rows back-to-back.
Arguably the most popular type of suspended coasters is the simple zip line, which consists of a pulley suspended on a cable mounted on an incline. Short and low zip lines are used by children and are often found in playgrounds. Longer and higher ones are often found at outdoor adventure camps. Costa Rica is known for its Canopy Tours where a holidaymaker can zip through the rainforest. The zip-lines are scattered among several platforms, some as high as 130ft. Zip lines are now finding homes in ski resorts and action parks, and New Zealand has the longest. ZipRider/Terra-Nova is a leading supplier of these systems which feature individual seats hanging from a single cable.
Suspended and inverted rollercoasters are sure to provide intense pleasure and thrills to park visitors this year and for years to come. From modestly-priced single-seaters to multi-million dollar mega rides, suspended and inverted coasters are variations on the rollercoaster experience that continue to please. And that is why you should love that track above!
For pictures of many of the rides described here, see the printed issue of Park World, April 2008.
What about flying coasters?
We put it to Paul Ruben, the author of this article, that a Flying Coaster, as built by Vekoma or B&M, is technically also a suspended coaster, as riders dangle beneath the track. Here’s Paul’s reason for not including them in his piece: “In my mind Flying Coasters are a different type, a flying style. On a flying coaster one is not seated, but prone, hence a different type of coaster.” Paul’s cue, surely, for another article in the future!