Walibi Belgium flies to new heights
Is it bird? Is it coaster? No, it’s a Mountain Glider! Walibi Belgium has finally opened its Vertigo ride, giving guests a bird’s eye view of the park and the closest experience they will get to flying like one. Park World profiles the latest attraction from a name that will be new to many within the amusement industry – Doppelmayr.
Stretching over vast sections of the park like a giant washing line, you just don’t miss Vertigo when you arrive at Walibi Belgium. Over 700 metres long, up to 55 metres high and lasting more than a minute-and-a-half, the ride is a beast in many ways, but with the grace of an eagle. “It looks very exciting, which it is, but it’s also a friendly ride,” highlights the park’s general manager Marcel CB Schonenberg.
Located in the town of Wavre near Brussels, Walibi Belgium, the original Walibi park, welcomed Schonenberg as its new GM at the start of the season. Having served previously at Walibi World in Holland, he’d already been involved in early discussions about introducing the Mountain Glider concept within the Walibi family.
“We discussed if we would like it and where in the group we would put it.” And they did want it. “Walibi parks I think are known for having different things and introducing innovations, so it matched our philosophy. It also fitted this park physically because you have these six big columns, but then the track is over the park and it didn’t requite a huge footprint.”
A coaster was taken out to make room for Vertigo’s fresh-looking station area and vertical lift tower, but as it hadn’t operated for years, guests hardly missed it. Now they are enjoying a more exhilarating experience, with the smug satisfaction of knowing they are riding a world first.
Passengers on the new attraction sit inline four-abreast on single gondolas suspended from a tubular guide rail. What makes Vertigo so breathtaking is not the seating, after all suspended coasters have been around for long enough, but the large unhindered expanses between the support towers. Doppelmayr says it can make stretches as long as 300 metres without any supports.
If that sounds precarious, then riders and park owners alike can take heart from the fact that Doppelmayr is the world leader in ropeway technology, with considerable experience of engineering ski lifts and other mountain-based transport systems.
“Compagnie des Alpes [Walibi owner and ski resort operator] is already one of Doppelmayr’s biggest clients and when they took the park over it’s probably fair to say they knew the company better than many within the parks division,” notes Schonenberg.
“We wanted to develop more attractions for the ski resort market, especially ones that they could use during the summertime,” explains Helmut Müller of Doppelmayr’s headquarters in Austria. “The reason the first Mountain Glider is in a park and not the mountains is because until now we have not found the right client with the right topography.”
However, since installing the ride at Walibi, he says, there has been big interest from the ski resort market. Roger Houben and 3DBA, meanwhile, will deal with the park orders.
“The entertainment market is very exciting for us and we are glad to have a totally new product for this industry,” adds Müller.
Not without its teething troubles, as we’ll touch on later, the Mountain Glider is a very interesting ride that has already aroused the curiosity of other parks and attractions. “There does seem to be quite a lot of interest from within the industry,” concedes Walibi Belgium’s general manager. “Have we had other operators here looking? A number of them, yes, and that’s only the ones I know of!”
Here’s what they will find. Vertigo riders board the vehicles as they move slowly through the station with the aid of a tyre drive. A conveyor belt travelling at the same speed beneath the cars assists with loading.
Lap bars, rather than over the shoulder restraints, provide a degree of freedom within the seats and, as the ride uses single cars, everyone has a front row view. Each car is raised 45 metres up the 55-metre lift tower in a swift action and rotated through 180 degrees, before engaging with the track ready for despatch.
“That’s one of the great parts of the ride,” believes Schonenberg, “because you turn and suddenly the whole park opens up in front of you. The vehicle also leaves the lift quite rapidly so you have some airtime.”
The car glides along the track at up to 20 metres per second (72km/h) at inclines of up to 45 degrees, with a subtle swing backwards and forwards and from side to side.
The diagram elsewhere on this page shows the track layout but there are essentially four straight sections to the ride, the largest 200 metres long, with a thrilling helix/spiral turn before the final run.
Although the cars run solely on gravity once they have leave the lift, an electromagnetic brake helps pace them apart and a mechanical brake, operated hydraulically via remote control with batteries in the cars, is there in case of emergency.
Eight vehicles are used, with up to six on the track at any one time. When it’s at full capacity, the ride will be able to handle up to 800 passengers an hour. Larger versions should be able to accommodate 1,200.
“It’s truly an amazing ride full of surprises,” underlines Schonenberg. “What is interesting is that the teens think it’s a thrill ride as they know it, but then they ride and go ‘wow that’s different!’ Other guests really appreciate the view.”
However refreshing the ride experience, does the new attraction not risk alienating those guests who simply can’t stand heights? “I was one of them, but I’ve been on it at least once and day and overcome that ‘Vertigo’. Now we see everyone from teens through to parents riding,” says Schonenberg.
Vertigo, the ride, should have opened in July of 2006, but a well-documented series of delays meant it was only in June this year that it took its first park guests. Setbacks perhaps could have been anticipated for two reasons. Not only is this the first Mountain Glider ever, but Doppelmayr is also new to the attractions industry.
“I have to say Doppelmayr has worked together with us splendidly. This is new for them, but they have tried very hard to make it work.” Schonenberg was not at the park last season when it had to abandon a ready to roll marketing campaign at the very last minute but, he tells us, “my feeling is that it has not been a real issue.” What was muttered behind the scenes at the time, however, perhaps we will never know.
The park nevertheless put on a brave face to the public. “By being open, explaining that by being innovative and not buying something off the shelf with a proven track record, I think we have been understood,” believes Schonenberg. “We’ve built up anticipation for the ride and that’s something we are harnessing this year.”
The focus in the meantime has been on improving overall standards within the park. “Last winter we invested four-and-a-half million on aesthetics and maintenance, painting, cleaning, putting back the capacity on some of the larger rides. It was needed, it worked, and this winter we will do the same.”
Some final tweaks will also be made to Vertigo. “We still haven’t opened the ride officially,” confesses Schonenberg, “That might sound odd but, although most of the technical challenges have been resolved for this season, we still do not have the anticipated capacity and will need another series of modifications this winter before we have the agreed capacity.”
In the meantime, those that visit the park this season and ride Vertigo are given a card and encouraged to visit a dedicated website for the ride and share their experiences in exchange for prizes.
“We are building awareness in a viral way and I have to tell you the reactions on the website are really outstanding,” reveals Schonenberg. Maybe, we put it to him, if the campaign builds enough momentum by the start of 2008 then a full scale promotional push won’t be needed? “I don’t think we are ready to abandon above the line media just yet!” he smiles.