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Rebuilding the classics: Steel transplants for wooden coasters

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Published: May 18, 2014 at 8:57 PM

Six Flags Fiesta Texas doesn’t have a typical theme park skyline. The park is mostly flat and surrounded by tall cliffs — or, more accurately, the park sits beneath the walls of the rock quarry the park is developed inside. The equipment has long since moved out and the park makes up the entertainment area of the La Cantera development in San Antonio.

Just as the old became new to create Fiesta Texas 22 years ago, the park’s only wooden roller coaster was revitalized for the 2013 season. The Rattler was, and I say this with love in my heart, one of the worst roller coasters I have ever experienced. It perfectly summed up the eyes-bigger-than-stomachs approach to wooden roller coasters in the 1990s and it took out its vengeance on every poor rider who made the mistake of getting in line.

Other than the lift hill, station and signature tunnel, not much resemblance can be taken between Iron Rattler and its former iteration. The ride looks fantastic -- as most roller coasters would when pitted against the backdrop of a rocky quarry; but Iron Rattler delivers where its most important, too.

At the Iron Rattler

The New Texas Giant (that name will sound even hokier in 10 years) was the test child for Rocky Mountain Construction and they passed with flying colors. The hybrid roller coaster is classified as steel in Mitch Hawker’s great roller coaster poll and in its second year of operation is ranked as the second best steel coaster in the world. Iron Rattler? Ranked tenth. Taking two wooden coasters past their prime and turning them into world beaters? Yeah, that’s the kind of boost Six Flags was looking for.

RMC built their first roller coaster from scratch for Silver Dollar City. Outlaw Run, classified as a wooden roller coaster, debuted to number three on Hawker’s wooden roller coaster poll. The company is involved in three more projects -- two of which will open in 2014. Goliath at Six Flags Great America is the company’s second built-from-scratch coaster and the woodie will take the mantle of tallest and fastest upon itself when it opens this summer.

Meanwhile, their latest refurbishment project is south of the border at Six Flags Mexico. Medusa will re-open this summer as a steel roller coaster, making four of the five RMC installations Six Flags based. RMC’s sixth is due to open in 2016 in Sweden -- though it’s still early enough in the year that more announcements could come for the as of yet unfilled 2015 season.

The trend is making the distinction between steel and wood roller coasters more blurry; which, quite frankly, doesn’t really matter. All the paying customer is concerned with is a ride that’s fun, and unlike The Rattler, doesn’t absolutely annihilate every bone in their body. So far so good!

Given the success of these wood-to-steel conversions, it opens up a fun conversation for theme park fans: Which coaster will get the treatment next? When will we first see a conversion project at a non-Six Flags park? There are plenty of Custom Coasters International roller coasters still in operation in the United States and while not all of their coasters need the steel treatment, I don’t know many people who would be upset if GhostRider received a makeover. The Knott’s Berry Farm wooden coaster has dropped from fourth place in 2000 (its best ranking) to 62nd in 2013 (its worst ranking.

The reason theme park fans should be clamoring for their worn out wooden coasters to undergo the steel transplant is simple: These coasters are incredible. The Texas Giant could well be the best roller coaster I have ever been on and Iron Rattler is nearly as good. Both bring the unbridled intensity and excitement of a wooden roller coaster with the smooth ride theme park goers expect from a steel coaster.

Iron Rattler is 1,000 feet shorter than The Texas Giant despite a 26-foot height advantage. It packs a punch in its 3,200+ foot course including a couple of overbank turns and the signature barrel roll on top of the quarry. The first drop, particularly in the back seat, is incredible -- all 81 degrees of the drop throw you up into the lap restraint, but not in a way that is ever uncomfortable. One of the strengths of the ride is that it gives you the feeling of reckless abandon without throwing you into the side of the cars.

Where Iron Rattler is a shot of adrenaline, the Texas Giant is more like a giant cup of coffee. It doesn’t lack in the intensity department, but it makes its money with bunny hops and high-speed turns. The two coasters are just four hours apart yet display two different styles that RMC can provide. Variety isn’t particularly important to the average theme park guest who visits their home park a couple times a year, but for us theme park fans? It’s a godsend.

By giving RMC a chance, Six Flags has shown they’re not quite done revolutionizing the thrill ride industry. As long as they pair that with a halfway decent business model, this means good news and smooth rides for theme park fans for years to come.

Readers' Opinions

From Ed Newman on May 19, 2014 at 9:13 PM
Good article. Thanks for sharing. Our home park, SFOG has a wooden coaster that is badly in need of a "steel transplant". The Georgia Cyclone was pretty fun the first 5 or 6 years but is long past its prime and best avoided now. They have been replacing some of the wood and tracks the past 2 seasons, but I have heard there has only been minimal improvement in ride quality.
From 66.240.56.42 on May 20, 2014 at 8:37 AM
Goliath is also the steepest wooden roller coaster in the world...
From 68.96.53.138 on May 23, 2014 at 12:50 AM
Too bad there will never be an 'Iron Texas Cyclone'.
RIP Houston Astroworld
I remember it before they put the clamp wheels on the back 2 cars and whiplash guards/overshoulder restraint. Just a sunbaked unpadded steel lap bar that burned your legs and a sense of self preservation kept you from flying out.

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