A Brief History of Roller Coasters
Part II

by Jay Ducharme

copyright Jay Ducharme 1999-2019

[Note: This article was originally commissioned by Jim Serio for the now-defunct World of Coasters website. It's since been updated and is reproduced here by popular demand. For more detailed information read Robert Cartmell's terrific book, "The Incredible Scream Machine."]

The years after World War II saw the return of families with spending money and free time. The Baby Boomer generation needed something to do, somewhere to take their children. Walt Disney envisioned a park that was clean, safe and appealing for the entire family. He also wanted new types of rides. He turned to a small company called Arrow Development, headed by Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon. One of the rides Disney wanted was a simulation of riding down the Swiss Alps in a bobsled, with a final splashdown into the water. Arrow completely re-thought the way coasters were constructed and came up with a design that used tubular steel for the track and nylon-coated wheels on the coaster cars. The result was the Matterhorn Bobsleds in 1959, and that ride changed the amusement industry, and Arrow, forever.

Gradually theme parks (amusement facilities designed around one or more concepts like a western town or a storybook land) began to appear. One of these was Six Flags over Texas and it needed attractions. The designers approached a Swiss firm, Intamin AG, and asked for a 300-foot oil derrick as their centerpiece. They also asked Arrow to build them a ride that would simulate an out-of-control mine train. Using similar technology created for the Matterhorn, the result became a runaway hit for Arrow and lead to many other versions all over the world.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Toboggan Company under the leadership of John Allen had been quietly building a few wooden coasters here and there. The owner of a new theme park, King's Island in Cincinnati Ohio, approached PTC and asked for a signature ride. In 1972, John Allen gave them The Racer, an enormous aesthetically pleasing ride that led to a resurgence in the love of wooden coasters. It also led to an ongoing battle among the new theme parks as to which would claim the largest, fastest, steepest and most appealing rides. Coasters, which had been torn down by the hundreds, were now being built anew.

Intamin, working with German designer Anton Schwartzkopf, debuted the all-steel Great American Revolution at Magic Mountain in California to an astounded public in 1975, on time for the bicentennial of the United States. It was the first coaster to attempt a vertical loop since the early 1900s. This time, however, the problems that the early prototypes had were corrected. The ride was a great success. The door was open to a whole new thrill: being turned upside down. At the same time, Arrow developed the corkscrew which turned riders upside-down twice. Then Arrow added their own style of vertical loop and Cedar Point in Ohio debuted their Corkscrew, which had a record-setting three inversions. The race was on.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, parks tested the patrons' limits of endurance. Not since the Golden Age had coasters been built so rapidly. Arrow, by then under the leadership of Ron Toomer, led the way building rides with up to seven inversions and approaching the 200-foot-high mark. They also created the first practical suspended coaster, where the trains hung underneath the track and were free to swing from side to side. Probably the most famous example of this was Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Big Bad Wolf.  In 1989 Arrow gave Cedar Point Magnum XL-200. Rising 205 feet and with a steep 60-degree drop, it broke all records for height and speed (over 70 mph). It also was one of the first all-steel coasters designed to imitate the ride of a wooden "out-and-back" coaster. There were no loops, and it didn't matter -- the ride was a thrill from start to finish. Arrow followed that in 1991 with Kennywood Park's Steel Phantom, which dropped riders 228 feet off a cliff.

Other companies were experimenting with interesting coaster ideas: TOGO from Japan created a ride called Ultra Twister, which dropped passengers nearly 90 degrees and put them through a "heartline roll," as if the passengers had been shot out of a gun barrel. They also built the first coaster that you had to ride standing up, King Cobra at King's Island. Vekoma, a firm from the Netherlands, created the biggest-selling ride in the history of coasters: the Boomerang. In a small space and in a short time, riders were turned upside-down six times -- three forwards and three backwards. It was a perfect ride for smaller parks and the company sold over 30 of them. Morgan Manufacturing, headed by Dana Morgan (the son of Arrow's founder) took a hint from the success of coasters like the Magnum XL-200. Morgan's company started off making replacement trains for wooden roller coasters. Then he developed his own style of mega-coaster (out-and-back-style steel rides that are over 200 feet high).

With the advent of inexpensive microprocessors in the 1990s plus the increased use of pneumatics and hydraulics on rides, coupled with the use of computers to design rides, steel roller coasters became more and more technologically advanced. Two Swiss designers who had worked for Intamin, Walter Bolliger and Claude Mabillard, formed their own company and in 1992 premiered Batman The Ride at Six Flags Great America in Illinois. This was the first inverted coaster. There were two main differences between this coaster and the suspended coasters Arrow had pioneered. First, the B&M trains were rigidly fixed to the track and didn't swing from side to side. Second, riders sat in trains that more closely resembled ski-lift chairs, with their legs dangling. Riders were then subjected to loops, heartline rolls and a ride so smooth it was more like riding in a limousine. B&M has since been kept busy with major coaster installations every year. They have experimented with enormous stand-up coasters, "dive machines", mega-coasters, floorless coasters and flying coasters, where riders are suspended face-down.

The next major innovation in coaster design occurred in 1996. A new company, Premier Rides, installed two very compact looping rides at Paramount's King's Island in Ohio and Paramount's King's Dominion in Virginia. Elaborately themed to the old television series The Outer Limits, Flight of Fear used linear induction motors (basically high-powered magnets) to eliminate the lift hill and force the train down a straightaway at incredible speed. At the same time, Intamin was developing Superman The Escape for Six Flags Magic Mountain in California. This ride was similar to the old switchback coasters -- the single-car train ran down a straight track and up an incline, then came back down the incline and returned to the station. The statistics, however, were staggering: the incline was nearly 400 feet straight up and the speed of the train approached 100 miles per hour. The straightaway used linear synchronous motors, a sort of sister technology to that used on the Premier rides.

The year 2000 marked a milestone for roller coasters: Intamin coined the term "giga-coaster" by creating Millennium Force for Cedar Point. It was the first complete-circuit coaster to top 300 feet in height and reach speeds in excess of 90 mph. It also featured a first drop slope of 80 degrees. That same year, Intamin also created Superman: Ride of Steel (now Bizarro) for Six Flags New England. Many enthusiasts considered this ride to be the most perfectly designed steel roller coaster ever built. Although 100 feet shorter in height than Millennium Force, the ride featured a great sensation of speed, spectacular pacing, smooth and well-executed transitions and an uncanny sensation of flying. These Intamin mega-coasters, designed by Werner Stengel, set a new standard for steel rides.

In 2001 Arrow stunned the amusement world by debuting X at Six Flags Magic Mountain. This 200-foot-high prototype ride featured a 90-degree drop and a radical train design: passengers sat on either side of the track and the seats rotated passengers head-over-heels as the train sped around its circuit. This allowed the roller coaster to perform maneuvers that previously were impossible.

Also in 2001, Paramount King's Dominion in Virginia debuted Hypersonic XLC. This was the first roller coaster to utilize an air-powered launch, blasting the train from 0 to 80 mph in about 2 seconds. S&S Power, Inc., previously known for their tower rides that shot passengers up and down, designed the ride. After Hypersonic's launch, the train climbed 90 degrees straight up for 165 feet, rounded a very tight hill, then plunged 90 degrees straight down, leveling off, turning left and heading back for the station. For 2002, S&S improved on that idea and created the fastest roller coaster on the planet, Japan's Dodonpa, which reached speeds of 105 mph.

But records alone don't last very long. A few months after Millennium Force opened, Japan's Nagashima Spa Land broke that coaster's height record with Steel Dragon 2000, a 318 foot tall Morgan Manufacturing mega-coaster. Three years later, Intamin's answer to this stunned the world: Cedar Point debuted the first complete-circuit coaster to exceed the 400-foot-high mark, Top Thrill Dragster. The ride catapulted passengers to 120 miles per hour in just 4 seconds, shot them up the single 90-degree hill and returned them to the station in just 17 seconds. Not one to allow a record to go unbroken, Six Flags Great Adventure had Intamin add 20 feet in height and 8 more miles per hour (plus an extra hill) to create Kingda Ka. But all that cutting edge technology came at a price: the thrill machines were frequently malfunctioning, frustrating guests.  And the extreme forces could be punishing on a human body.  But the coaster wars continued with parks all over the globe competing for the biggest, loopiest rides. And the big winners in all this were the patrons.

During those years of steel coaster activity, wooden coasters by no means disappeared. PTC was still around, re-named Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters. It limited itself to building coaster trains. But the fortunes of wooden coaster builders mirrored the rest of the industry: parks wanted big thrills, and manufacturers were willing to deliver. In 1979, King's Entertainment Company enlisted the help of Charles Dinn to design and construct the longest wooden coaster in the world. The Beast at King's Island boasted 7400 feet of track and a ride time of four-and-a-half minutes. The ride was an exercise in speed, with the train racing unpredictably through a dense forest. The double-helix finale ranked as one of the most intense coaster experiences ever created. Dinn teamed up with designer Curtis Summers and together they reigned as the kings of wooden coasters in the 1980s, building dozens of record-setting rides including the Texas Giant for Six Flags Over Texas and its sister Mean Streak for Cedar Point. Many other designers emerged with their own styles: William Cobb created the terrifying Riverside Cyclone. John Pierce, an associate of Cobb's, created the astounding Fiesta Texas Rattler.  The majority of those rides were later reconfigured into steel coasters by Rocky Mountain Construction, a firm specializing in rehabilitating problem rides.  By retrofitting the coasters with steel tracks (and also re-designing the hills and often adding looping elements), they created a more thrilling ride that was smoother and required less maintenance.  However, the unique character of wooden coasters was lost.

Custom Coasters International, headed by Charles Dinn's daughter Denise Dinn Larrick, specialized in mid-sized rides. The company created more new wood coasters all over the world than any other company since the Golden Age. Perhaps their most spectacular achievements were two rides that had to fit into peculiar terrain. One was a relatively small ride that packed an intense punch: The Raven at Holiday World in Indiana. The ride was not that tall (70 feet) but gave a great sensation of speed diving through the forest around Lake Rudolph.

In an astounding feat of roller coaster engineering, CCI designed and constructed Boulder Dash for Connecticut's Lake Compounce in 2000. This wooden coaster was built along the side of a rocky mountain, and the designers took full advantage of that unusual topography. The ride appeared to continually rise higher while increasing in speed. Many surprising drops and turns punctuated the long trip.

Another popular wood coaster design company was formed by CCI's first designer, Mike Boodley, with Clair Hain. Great Coasters International created rides whose stunning profiles harked back to the golden days of Prior and Church and Harry Traver. The track seemed impossibly steep and twisted, yet at the same time graceful. An example of their work is Hersheypark's Lightning Racer in Pennsylvania, which also sports the company's comfortable single-bench articulating trains.

Two other innovations deserve note. In 2000, Paramount Parks constructed an unusual Werner Stengel design. Son of Beast became the only wooden roller coaster to rise 218 feet up, drop passengers 214 feet at over 70 mph and also blast them through a loop.  The ride was a maintenance challenge, though.  The loop was eventually removed.  But maintenance still proved problematic and the ride proved too severe and was torn down.  Stengel was also behind a new technique in wood coaster construction. For Intamin, he designed Balder for Liseberg in Sweden. It was the first wooden rollercoaster to have the track laminations made from laminated wood. The prefabricated track created a much smoother ride, more akin to Intamin's steel coasters, and it also allowed wood coasters to safely exceed the 200-foot mark.  In the United States, one example is El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.

Another company that has created an interesting niche for itself is Rocky Mountain Construction. They specialize in taking older wooden coasters, saving much of the original wood structure but replacing the track with their own patented steel construction. They've given new life to older rides and reduced maintenance for the park. But that comes at the expense of the removable of a classic wooden ride.

As parks have entered the new millennium, there have been acquisitions and consolidations. Amusement companies were for a while more cautious with their dollars and focused more on family rides instead of record-breaking thrill rides. But by the second decade of the 21st century, a new coaster arms race had built up with more record-breaking thrill rides appearing all over the world. So many coaster firms are still active and doing well. As long as they can provide an exciting guest experience, they'll always do well. But there are only so many times a guest can experience a novelty thrill before it gets stale. On the other hand, the tried and true techniques from the Golden Age -- good pacing and a sense of theatricality in the design -- will probably always have appeal.

Someone had asked me about coaster braking technology, so I'll digress here for a minute. There are three basic types of coaster braking systems. The first and some of the oldest are skid brakes. Canobie LakeÕs Yankee Cannonball still uses them as do the wood coasters at Knoebels, but fewer and fewer coasters do. The main reason theyÕre disappearing is that theyÕre unreliable in the rain. They work by friction just like old car shoe brakes, pressing against the underside of the train. When they get wet, itÕs like getting oil on the skids.

The second type (and probably the most common) are caliper brakes, just like on modern cars. Those trains have steel fins underneath and pass through long spring-loaded calipers that squeeze against the fins. Those arenÕt affected by rain as severely and are used on both wood and steel coasters. And by default, the calipers are always on. So if thereÕs a power or hydraulic failure, the brakes still function.

The third and more recent type are magnetic brakes. This time, there are steel fins along the track. The underside of the train has non-moving calipers made of rare earth magnets of alternating polarity. As the train passes over the fins, the train is rapidly but smoothly brought to a crawl, but it doesnÕt stop. Instead, hydraulically-powered tires under the track catch the train and hold it until all is clear, then spin to move the train back to the station.

Intamin has used that system a lot, even putting magnetic brakes onto hills to act as trim brakes. Naturally, hills always suck potential energy out of the train. A good designer uses them to help regulate a coasterÕs speed throughout its circuit. Until a few decades ago, the potential energy was always determined by the height of the lift hill. But now, designers can incorporate booster elements during the ride to keep the train at a certain speed regardless of the track length or hill height. Those elements are basically magnetic brakes in reverse, where an alternating current is applied to drive the train forward. That system is wicked expensive, so you usually see it only at the big theme parks. You can clearly see it at work here, along with the drive tires.

Not so long ago, a 200-foot-high ride was only a dream. In fact, before 1955 the future of amusement parks themselves looked pretty bleak. But a new Golden Age returned. Technology continued to advance. Companies continued to find more ways to make an eager public smile. How much is enough? We'll only know that when the public stops riding. The industry in general has become much more safety-conscious than in the days of Traver's Cyclone. As long as passengers don't get hurt, they'll usually come back for more. Right now, riders seem to enjoy what amusement parks have to offer and the future looks pretty good.

PART ONE or Karen and Jay's Amusement Page