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Coaster Tech: An Insider's look at flying roller coasters

Russell Meyer

By Russell Meyer
Published: July 31, 2014 at 4:19 PM

When guests first started experiencing inverted and suspended roller coasters, people described the sensations of riding those coasters to flying. The way many inverted coasters zipped along their tracks with riders’ feet dangling free, particularly in the front row, is very much like flying on a twisted hang glider. In 2000, the long-rumored concept of a flying roller coaster became reality.

At Paramount’s Great America, as it was known in 2000, Vekoma installed the world’s first flying roller coaster, called Stealth. In the year that Cedar Point and Six Flags Magic Mountain opened roller coasters attempting to establish new world records (Millennium Force and Goliath, respectively), the Santa Clara, California park was breaking new boundaries with a coaster type that would further diversify the theme park landscape. Vekoma’s creation was known as a Flying Dutchman model coaster, and has since been relocated to Carowinds as Borg Assimilator and eventually Nighthawk. While it was Vekoma’s first attempt at a flying roller coaster, it doesn’t differ much from the other two Flying Dutchman coasters installed in the United States (Batwing at Six Flags America and X-Flight at Geauga Lake, later moved to Kings Island as Firehawk). All three coasters feature trains that riders load in a sitting position, then are reclined back before leaving the station to begin the course. The biggest difference between Stealth/Nighthawk and the other two Flying Dutchman is that Vekoma’s first flying coaster has only one loading platform and a slightly shorter track. However, all three feature significant flaws. On Vekoma’s flying design, guests are restrained using a locking lap bar combined with padded, ratcheting shoulder straps that clip together like a seat belt. Having ridden all three installations, all of them have issues with the clips that lock the shoulder straps together, which can delay loading and unloading. Also, the position that riders are placed in after reclining can be extremely uncomfortable, as guests are lying on their backs with their feet and waist positioned above their head. After being stuck in the station for just a few minutes, I can attest as to how uncomfortable the position can be. However, once on the lift hill, and throughout most of the ride, the position is rather comfortable and does a very good job of simulating the sensation of flying. The other major design flaw to the Vekoma Flying Dutchman coasters is that all of the hydraulics controlling the reclining of the seats, as well as the computers controlling the locking of the training and ratcheting of the belts are carried on board the trains. Not only does this make the trains extremely heavy and robust, but it also means that those mechanisms and electronics are subjected to the same forces as riders, and that wear and tear has led to significant downtime for all three coasters. However, the Vekoma design, apart from the vertical loop, takes advantage of the rider’s flying position over much of the coaster’s course with riders facing down for nearly 2/3 of the ride.

Vekoma flyer

In 2002, the masters of roller coaster design, Bolliger and Mabillard, came up with a flying coaster design that would put the Flying Dutchman to shame. With the installations of Air at Alton Towers and Superman: Ultimate Flight at Six Flags Over Georgia (later cloned at Six Flags Great Adventure and Six Flags Great America in 2003), B&M took the flying coaster design and perfected it. There are some similarities between the Vekoma and B&M designs, but the subtle differences are what make B&M’s design head and shoulders above the rest. The most striking difference is the way in which riders are moved into the flying position. On the Vekomas, riders do not experience the flying position until they crest the top of the lift hill. On the B&M’s riders achieve the flying position in the station, as the trains’ seats are lifted up and locked into place instead of flying riders on their back. The second major difference in the restraints that are two separate devices on the Vekomas (lab bar and locking shoulder straps) and one integrated shoulder restraint and lap bar on the B&M design. B&M supplements the restraint system with ankle locks that prevent riders’ legs from dangling. Needless to say, riding a B&M flying roller coaster is far more comfortable. Not only that, but B&M has come up with custom designed layouts that have pushed the envelope of coaster design, and created one of a kind experiences like Manta and Tatsu, which are in my opinion the two best flying roller coasters on the planet.

Manta sign

Manta, in flight

Tatsu

Just about every B&M flying design contains their signature element, the pretzel loop, which creates an intense amount of G’s at the bottom, concentrated right in the middle of a rider’s chest. The element is not for the faint of heart, and if ill-prepared, will catch you by surprise with an incredibly intense experience.

Superman

I just recently had an opportunity to ride another type of flying roller coaster designed by Zamperla. Time Warp at Canada’s Wonderland (formerly Tomb Raider) is quite possibly one of the strangest roller coaster experiences I’ve ever had. Passengers ride trains with 4 “seats” situated in a single row that move while boarding to expedite the loading process, much like many mild mouse-style coasters. Riders climb up a step ladder built into the train and position their head and hands into position. The back of the train is then locked from behind and the train is lifted into the flying position before ascending a spiral-style lift leading to the spins and turns of the course. What is extremely strange about the coaster is that guests are not locked tight into position, and are instead in a cage-like restraint that allows you some freedom of movement. Some people might find this design liberating, but I found it unnerving as my body rolled around the cage while negotiating the tight twists and turns of the coaster. There are a number of clones of this coaster located around the world, but after riding Time Warp once at Canada’s Wonderland, I didn’t feel the need to ride another Zamperla flyer again.

Time Warp

There are officially 29 flying coasters around the world according to the Roller Coaster Database (rcdb.com), but it’s a type of coaster that has just become popular over the past decade. As B&M as perfected the flying coaster design, the popularity has grown. However, Manta, which opened in 2009, still represents the newest flying roller coaster installed in the United States, with B&M and many theme parks turning their attention to the wing coaster design. With Banshee potentially brining a renaissance of the inverted coaster, perhaps a theme park in the US will approach B&M or another coaster designer to develop an ever better flying coaster. Nonetheless, the flying coasters that do exist in the world give guests some of the most amazing sensations of flight that cannot be matched by any other coaster design.

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Halloween News: Of icons and IP — the differences among Universal's Halloween Horror Nights events

Jacob Sundstrom

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: July 31, 2014 at 10:25 AM

There was a bit of a lull in theme park announcements this week — Halloween Horror Nights has remained silent and we’re all waiting for Knott’s to drop their maze lineup August 6. After these dominoes start to fall we’ll learn more about what to expect from the smaller, regional parks across the country.

Last week we linked to a report about the Horror Nights event in Singapore but didn’t spent a lot of time discussing the event. Now in its fourth year, Horror Nights Singapore uses a similar format to that used by the Orlando event: namely, it uses an icon. This year’s icon, Jonah Goodwill, has been teased through promotional videos (there are five in that playlist) and takes prime placement on their website.

The videos are very cinematic, even the first which was filmed (I believe) at the press conference for the event is very well done. As Goodwill takes reign in Singapore, it appears we are seeing icons take a backseat in American properties. Hollywood has not relied on an icon since 2007 when they brought in the New Line troupe of Freddy, Jason and Leatherface to run the show (though they used Jack the Clown in many promotional videos over the years).

Orlando, the event that has most relied on an icon to sell the show in the past, has moved away from using a made-for-the-event character as the focal point of their campaign. Three years ago Lady Luck was the icon of the Orlando event — since then the ambiguous Legions of Terror led the way in 2012 and the zombies of the walking dead did the heavy lifting in 2013.

While the Japan event is still in its infancy, it has relied more on IPs than new-for-the-event icons. Resident Evil made an appearance in last year’s event, but it seems that Sadoka, the antagonist from The Ring, was the main icon of the event. Like the Hollywood event, and increasingly the Orlando event, it appears the focus is moving towards IPs as the means of drawing guests in. The power of the Brand is alive and well at Universal Studios.

Despite Universal’s newfound commitment to the brands of horror films, most other events rely on good ole-fashioned tropes to make their money. Howl-O-Scream in both Tampa and Williamsburg pumps out “oh yeah, that’s a Halloween Thing” maze concepts year in and year out. Cedar Fair and Six Flags use similar strategies, with Knott’s Berry Farm occasionally pulling in an IP to bolster its lineup.

As someone who has not gotten the full icon experience at their home event, I’ve always liked the concept — particularly the way it has been pulled off by Universal in Orlando. It adds something to tie the event together and gives the opportunity for great showpieces. The opening ceremony at Universal Studios Orlando became as much a part of the event as the mazes and scare zones, and it appears that is true in Singapore, too.

That all being said — if you have IPs, you have no business not using them. To the surprise of no one, The Walking Dead holds more advertising clout than Bloody Mary and Jack the Clown. Many fans (myself included) would like to see more non-IP mazes and icons at Halloween events, but the reality is we’re likely to see the number of IPs increase across the world, not the opposite. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing...just a thing.

Next week’s column will feature news on all the new mazes coming to Knott’s Scary Farm and (hopefully) some more news from Universal Studios, too.

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Disney World brings return time cards to Epcot's Soarin'

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: July 30, 2014 at 1:33 PM

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Game Review: Roller Coaster Tycoon 4 Mobile

Jacob Sundstrom

By Jacob Sundstrom
Published: July 29, 2014 at 1:35 PM

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Universal announces a new 'Puss in Boots' family coaster for Singapore

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: July 29, 2014 at 10:44 AM

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What are Orlando's best theme park hotels?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: July 28, 2014 at 10:01 AM

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King Kong is coming back to theaters, as it comes back to Universal Orlando

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: July 27, 2014 at 9:26 PM

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The Week Ahead: Disney and Universal schedules for July 28-August 3, 2014

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: July 27, 2014 at 2:37 PM

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Insider's Update: Setting sail from Pirate Island.. and a new freebie at Universal Orlando

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: July 26, 2014 at 10:18 AM

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Vote of the Week: Should theme parks make certain attractions available by reservation only?

Robert Niles

By Robert Niles
Published: July 25, 2014 at 9:02 AM

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