Cycle coasters take off
After more than a century of starts and stops, rollercoasters in which riders sit astride mounted seating, usually a horse or a motorbike, have finally caught on with the thrill-seeking public. Paul Ruben saddles up to explore the trend.
Towards the end of 2008, Intamin unveiled the latest take on the concept, with an adaptation of its Family Launch Coaster at Sea World on the Gold Coast in Australia. Jet Rescue seats up to 16 riders at a time on replica jetski vehicles and was opened in time for the Boxing Day holiday at this popular park in Queensland. Earlier in the year, two Zamperla MotoCoasters appeared at parks in North America, namely Orange County Choppers Motocoaster at Darien Lake in New York and Pony Express at Knott’s Berry Farm in California.
This follows the openings of three Vekoma Motorbike Launch Coasters: Booster Bike at Toverland, Holland, in 2004, Velocity (pictured above) at Flamingoland, England, in 2005 and Motorbike Launch Coaster at Chimelong Paradise in China during 2006. Then there was Intamin’s first motorbike-themed Family Launch Coaster in 2007 at Dreamworld in Australia.
That’s seven sit-astride coasters that have appeared since they were unveiled at the November 2003 IAAPA trade show, and more are planned. In addition to Intamin, Vekoma and Zamperla, Schäfer Amusement Technology (SAT Rides) also introduced its Motorbike Coaster at the same show but it has yet to be realised. But how innovative are these rides?
Guests have ridden astride similar coasters in the past, rides like the Cycle Chase (1976-1979) at Knott’s Berry Farm, the Steeplechase at Blackpool Pleasure Beach (1977-present), and of course the classic Steeplechase that operated for years at New York’s Coney Island (1897-1964) before being moved to Pirates World in Florida (1966 to 1975). What is new and innovative about the latest collection of Motorbike coasters is both the absence of a chain lift, as they are launched rides, and the much-improved restraint systems. You can’t fall off.
As we celebrate the resurgence of the sit-astride rollercoaster, it may be surprising to learn that the concept began in England. JW Cawdry invented a mechanical racecourse consisting of metal track, over which large wooden horses ran on wheels, coasting by gravity and climbing by momentum, imitating a horse race.
When George Tilyou opened the 15-acre Steeplechase Park in 1897 at Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, he looked around for an attraction that would do for him what the Shoot-the-Chutes had done for Paul Boyton’s nearby Sea Lion Park. Since the most popular sport at the time was horse racing, he was excited to hear of JW Cawdry’s mechanical racecourse. He bought the rights to the British inventor’s flawed ride for $41,000, then improved it beyond recognition for the opening of Steeplechase Park. The Steeplechase Horses, as Tilyou called the ride, soon became synonymous with Coney Island. Six double-saddled mechanical horses were pulled by chain lift to the top of the highest hill before taking passengers down 1,100ft of undulating track, over a stream bed and a series of hurdles, all around the outside of the park. The tracks ran abreast, simulating a horse race in which gravity gave the heavier riders the advantage. Tilyou dressed his attendants as jockeys and announced the start of each ride with a bugle.
“They [the horses] careened around old creaky tracks at breakneck speed,” remembers Danny Sweet, who grew up in Brooklyn. “As insane as it may sound now there were no seat belts, so you had to hold on for dear life!”
When Steeplechase Park finally closed in the fall of 1964, the Steeplechase Horses were purchased for $100,000 by Pirates World, Dania, Florida, and reopened there as the Grand National Steeplechase in 1966. The ride operated as four parallel tracks between 1,600 and 1,700ft long. Pirates World closed for good in 1975.
But the sit-astride coaster concept was not dead. The very next year (1976), Knott’s Berry Farm, California, introduced Cycle Chase. Supplied by Arrow Development, it consisted of four 1,778ft-long lanes of track, one rail above the other. Atop the rails rode motorcycle-themed vehicles. Riders sat precariously on the cycles, and once free of the lift hill, the cycles reached speeds of up to 40 mph.
“One of the most terrifying experiences I ever lived through was riding the Motorcycle Chase,” recalls guest Cheryl Monteiro. “I was 26 or 27 years old when I was talked into riding it. From the outside it looked like just a cute little ride on a faux motorcycle with only a sash around your waist to hold you on–how dangerous could it be? Very dangerous, to say the least! After the ride ended I endured whiplash, sore arms from hanging on for dear life, and had the shakes for several hours.”
In 1980 the ride was remodelled as the Wacky Soap Box Racers in which riders sat lower on benches surrounded by the vehicle sidewalls and reached more moderate speeds of 30 mph. These Racers remained in operation until replaced in 1997 by the Windjammer racing coaster from Togo, which in 2002 was replaced by the current Xcelerator launched coaster from Intamin.
In 1977 Arrow delivered a second unit to the Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, England. Employing two lifthills and three 1,500ft-long tracks, the horses provide inline seating for two riders. The 40ft first lift provides a top speed of 30 mph. Themed as a horse race and dubbed the Steeplechase, it continues to delight riders to this day.
Arrow has since been acquired by S&S Worldwide, which is not currently offering a sit-astride coaster, but Vekoma, Intamin, Zamperla and Schäfer are. Gone are the lift hills. Each manufacturer now launches the ride vehicles in another fashion.
The Vekoma Motorbike Coaster was the first of the modern era to emerge when it debuted at Toverland, Sevenum, Holland, in 2004. The ride consists of a train with nine cars, each with two motorcycle seats designed to replicate the seating on a motorcycle. Riders are clamped in from behind, but allowed free upper body movement. It is like taking a rollercoaster ride on top of a bike, but being high in the sky with almost nothing underneath to spoil your view. After dispatching from the station, the train is hydraulically launched from zero to 47 mph in three seconds, into a twisting layout.
In 2007 Intamin introduced its Family Launch Coaster (FLC), a version of the sit-astride coaster, at Dreamworld, Coomera, Australia. Called Mick Doohan’s Motocoaster after the Australian-born five-time MotoGP champion, the rotating tires that power the train through the launch are driven by hydraulic motors. Guests sit two abreast in eight rows for a total of 16 riders and reach a top speed of 44 mph within three seconds as they race over 1,984ft of track. Keeping the track low to the ground also increases the feeling of speed and allows the onlookers to be more a part of the excitement.
Although none of its units have yet to appear, Schäfer Amusement Technology’s motorcycle version allows prospective clients to choose from a wide variety of options, including a lifthill start, an LIM-launch and a either single or dual-track layout, the latter designed to allow duelling between a pair of cars or trains.
The Zamperla MotoCoaster, initially built as a demountable ride on a base frame, consists of a 12-seater train of six cars, two seats side by side per car. Similar to the system pioneered by Anton Schwarzkopf in shuttle coasters more than 30 years ago, Zamperla’s coaster uses a flywheel and clutch system to launch instead of an electromagnetic or hyrdraulic launch system. The standard track layout is a three-layered figure-eight. The prototype was installed in 2008 at Darien Lake outside Buffalo, New York, and another will open this summer at Petapa Park, Xetulul, Guatemala. A specially designed version, with ride vehicles styled as horses, was also installed in 2008 at Knott’s Berry Farm, where it is named Pony Express.
Marty Keithley, vice-president and general manager for Knott’s, points out that “we have had motorcycle type rides before, dating back to the ’70s and ‘80’s, but we were attracted to this particular coaster because of its unique restraint system that allows for a very free-feeling ride.”
As ride manufacturers continue to devise new rollercoaster variations, expect to see more sit-astride coasters. They may take the form of motorcycles, horses, jetskis, or perhaps even galloping camels, but because of their moderate price more are sure to surface in the coming years. The ride that once thrilled only visitors to Coney Island has found new appeal worldwide – only now it’s a lot smoother.