Why do regional amusement parks just build so many roller coasters?

January 8, 2013, 2:26 PM · Did you catch that interesting revelation in our post earlier this week about Knott's Berry Farm and its influential Log Ride? Knott's is taking the ride down for five months for a major refurbishment, including the addition of new animatronic figures and scenes to support the ride's story.

But that wasn't the news that treally got my attention. Instead, it was this, from the park's press release: "The Knott's Timber Mountain Log Ride remains the most popular ride in the park, surpassing all of Knottā€™s other attractions in ridership."

The Knott's Timber Mountain Log Ride

Wow. With all the money that Knott's (and its current owner, Cedar Fair) have invested in multi-million-dollar roller coasters over the years, it's still the Log Ride that's putting more people through day-in and day-out, more than forty years after its debut.

I suppose that makes sense, if you know about ride capacities. One awful secret of the amusement business is that most roller coasters have terrible ride capacity. You might think that coasters have such long lines because they're popular. Popularity brings people into the lines, sure, but low capacity is what really drives wait times. The fewer people a ride can put through in an average hour, the longer everyone who wants to ride will have to wait.

Log flumes, with an ever-flowing supply of "logs" to fill, typically put through more riders per hour than roller coasters, which have a limited number of trains that must be kept far apart from one another on the track. Flume-based dark rides often stand as their parks' capacity kings -- Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World are crowd eaters, capable of putting through more than 2,000 riders per hour apiece.

But all the capacity in the world won't make an attraction a park's top dog for ridership if people don't want to go on it. That Knott's Log Ride is leading the park in ridership speaks not just to its capacity, but its enduring appeal to visitors, as well.

Which raises the question: If rides like the Log Ride are so popular, and so efficient in handling crowds, why don't parks build more of them? Why do regional amusement park chains such as Cedar Fair and Six Flags continue to spend millions a year to build roller coasters that put through hundreds of visitors per hour instead of investing in dark rides and log flumes that could serve thousands per hour?

When was the last time you saw a park debut a log flume ride? Or an indoor boat ride? The last I remember is Universal's Madagascar ride in Singapore, which remains the only indoor boat ride Universal's ever ordered. And that was the first new one in years. Outside of a few Sally Corp. shooters (and the defunct Hard Rock Park), I can't recall any new tracked dark rides at regional theme parks over the past decade.

Good log flumes and dark rides aren't cheap. Show scenes, lighting, climate control and water flow all cost money -- expenses you typically can avoid operating a roller coaster. But how much new market share does adding yet another roller coaster actually bring to a park? How many more new visitors could a park win by adding a new flume, non-soaking boat ride or indoor dark ride, instead? Let's not forget that there is one theme park company that's shown you can make a pretty strong return on investment by emphasizing boat and track rides over roller coasters.

Disney's not the far-and-away market leader in theme parks just because of its cartoon characters, movie- and TV-tie-ins and entertainment line-ups. The Disney theme parks offer a ride line-up substantially unlike most other theme park chains -- one that's heavy on dark rides, boat rides and, yes, even a very popular log flume. (Which, by all accounts, it totally ripped off from Knott's Berry Farm.)

I would love, love, love to see Knott's multi-million-dollar investment in its Log Flume represent a change in attitude at Cedar Fair (now run by ex-Disneyland President Matt Ouimet, by the way). We love roller coasters. But we love log flumes, boat rides and dark rides, too. Why not invest in building some new ones? Why make your customers wait hours in line for yet another coaster, when so many more visitors and would-be visitors could be enjoying one of these other popular types of rides instead?

Replies (29)

January 8, 2013 at 2:47 PM · I remember back, it must be 20 years ago now when Sea World Australia debuted the "Bermuda Triangle"... Dark/River-ride with a few drops, but it was the special effects that the ride was sold on....

(Although to be fair it was an update of the long forgotten "lassiters lost reef" of which I only know that the ride mechanism was kept).

Sadly though, when you rely on the greatest effects you can buy today, you're just 5 mins away from being old news. Now the ride lies dormant with mere rumours of it coming back. A similar ride at sister Park "Warner Bro Movie World" featuring the Looney Tunes characters also lies dormant.

A loop is a loop is a loop is a loop - it's always going to be exciting. G-Forces never go out of style. Advanced effects have a sell by date built in...

January 8, 2013 at 2:52 PM · Disney only has one log flume ride decades after Splash Mountain opened. They have more river rapids rides and Knott's has one as well.

The question should also be asked about dark rides. Why don't regional parks do more small dark rides (Snow White, Mr. Toads, Pinnochio, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland) like what Disneyland has? They are relatively cheap when compared to the more elaborate E-Ticket dark rides like the Haunted Mansion and The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, Disney closed some small dark rides in Orlando and opened a limited number of small dark rides in their new parks.

Regional parks should have a wider variety of rides and not just roller coasters. I could say the same for Universal who went to the simulator route. I'm tired of sitting through another movie at Universal. My butt is tired from the shaking of my seat.

I wish Knott's would update the Calico Mine Train ride and bring back its closed Dinosaur or Knott's Berry Tale ride.

January 8, 2013 at 2:57 PM · Most roller coasters have terrible ride capacity? Perhaps wild mouses or any single-train attraction aren't the most efficient, but the majority of roller coasters are people eating machines. I've worked at a seasonal amusement park for three years now and of its 45 rides, the roller coasters have the biggest hourly capacity (alongside the train and omnimover dark ride). Multiple coaster trains, fitting upwards of 30 people, with frequent dispatches easily smash any flat ride in number of riders.

And regarding water rides, those can become maintenance nightmares. Plus you may have to suspend its early spring and late fall operations for seasonal parks, which already operate on a restricted time period.

January 8, 2013 at 2:58 PM · Excellent posting that makes perfect sense. Roller coasters are fun, we all know that but excellent themed attractions have a way of standing out. Everybody has roller coasters but where else can I ride a 3-D simulator on a track (Transformers/Spider-Man at Universal). Or how about an elaborate ride through a "haunted" house (Haunted Mansion at Disney).

These are the experiences that keep me visiting these attractions instead of some of the more coaster-heavy parks. Judging from the attendance numbers I'm definitely not the only one.

January 8, 2013 at 2:59 PM · Most roller coasters have terrible ride capacity? Perhaps wild mouses or any single-train attraction aren't the most efficient, but the majority of roller coasters are people eating machines. Of my local amusement park's rides, the roller coasters have the biggest hourly capacity (alongside the train and omnimover dark ride). Multiple coaster trains, fitting upwards of 30 people, with frequent dispatches easily smash any flat ride in number of riders.

And regarding water rides, those can become maintenance nightmares. Plus you may have to suspend its early spring and late fall operations for seasonal parks, which already operate on a restricted time period.

January 8, 2013 at 3:17 PM · I read a blog that said the ride capacity for HPATFJ is over 2,500 and Transformers is around 1,800.

Numbers like that always impress me, especially when you look at the quality of attraction. I wish theme park spent more time on higher quality rides that support higher hourly capacities.

I'm heading out to Orlando on Thursday for the WDW Marathon and I will be sneaking away from the mouse house to enjoy some butter beer and a few spins on HPATFJ.

January 8, 2013 at 3:25 PM · "One awful secret of the amusement business is that most roller coasters have terrible ride capacity"

Let's do the math.

An expensive B&M or Intimin coaster has 32 seats. Most of these big coasters can be dispatched every 90 seconds. That's a capacity of 1280 guests per hour.

Now using a YouTube clip of the Coal Cracker at Hershey Park, their turntable releases boats every 15 seconds (240 times an hour). And the traditional log flume probably averages 4 guests per boat, giving most log flumes an average of 960 guests an hour. The duel stations used at Knott's probably dispatches the same or slower.

Of course the answer is to make bigger boats while still retaining quick dispatches. But parks don't like to make headlining flume rides because water makes everything harder and more expensive. Just look at Jaws, Madagascar and Splash Mountain;s current condition.

January 8, 2013 at 3:29 PM · Love the Orlando theme parks primarily for the dark rides and something other than coasters attractions. Yes. I'm surprized regional parks don't do more of them...Our local regional gem, Kennywood Park, had the debut of Ghostwood Estates, a dark ride shooter in 2008. The entrance beginning mimics Disney's Haunted Mansion. It replaced the dark ride Gold Rusher. Kennywood even adapted it for their Christmas season celebration this year. The ghosts were outfitted with Christmas outfits while decorations & music adorned the ride. Kennywood also has Noah's Ark, a darkride classic, and Garfield's Nightmare, a old mill refurbished boat ride. All three attractions experience large crowds. And I would think the cost of these Peter Pan level dark rides is much less than a large coaster.Before Disneyland existed, there were generally four or five dark rides on Kennywood property at any given year. ...Heh, I like coasters, but dark rides are more fun IMHO. But the best is when a dark ride & coaster are combined, ie. Mummy's Revenge, Aerosmith. Now that's really fun.
January 8, 2013 at 3:48 PM · Time to pull this age old quote out of my bag of tricks:

Marty Sklar, one of the original Imagineers, once said, "We're in the business of telling great stories, and great stories never grow old. In the end, a roller coaster is just a roller coaster."

So why do regional parks just build roller coasters? Well, they're cool, and eye catching, and often provide a nice two-three year attendance bump. They can give parks bragging rights, create excitement, and are definitely a draw for most of us who plan world wide (or at least cross country) pilgrimages to increase an insignificant, but all consuming, "coaster count".

But, most importantly, coasters are generally far less expensive than their dark ride counterparts (exceptions being coasters like Expedition Everest and Revenge of the Mummy, which are really just story-driven dark rides disguised as roller coasters). A good coaster like Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City will run a company $10M.... a good dark ride like Spider-Man: $80M - $100M. I think cost is the biggest factor. Regional parks can make a big splash for less money by building an uber coaster than by breaking the bank on a one of a kind narrative attraction.

Of course, in a perfect world, someone would build a great story-driven, 4-D coaster, with amazing animatronics, a 500 ft drop, a top speed of 200 mph, and a dozen inversions. Sadly, this world is far from perfect.

January 8, 2013 at 4:33 PM · I have to agree with James R. on this one. Roller coasters are much more of a magnet for thrill seekers than a dark or flat ride. I'm not saying that non-coaster rides can't be just as much, if not more fun, but there's something about a giant steel behemoth that rises 300'+ in the air and sprawls out, overhead, over a quarter of a park's real estate. It just screams for attention! Add to that the fact that they are typically less expensive to install, operate, and maintain, and you start to see why so many parks keep installing new ones.

As for capacity, you could argue it both ways. There are many coasters out there that are designed to be people eaters, but the park's don't always operate them at maximum efficiency, causing queue lines to be long and slow moving. One train operations and only using one side of a dual-sided loading station during peak times are prime examples of how parks cut corners to save money at the expense of the guest experience.

January 8, 2013 at 4:50 PM · To Rob Pastor's comment about the best solution being when a park combines a dark ride with a roller coaster. I believe his earlier mentioned Kennywood has such a ride in its Exterminator spinning wild mouse coaster. For a traditional amusement park, Kennywood has a really nice collection of rides. That's why it's rather baffling why there's no entry for this park on TPI's web site.

- Brian

January 8, 2013 at 5:10 PM · I think there are actually several good reasons why regional amusement parks build primarily large roller coasters and thrill rides. The most significant are budget and audience related. Think about it like this: What would Transformers be on a $10 million budget? Would Radiator Springs Racers have the same appeal if it was themed to a generic Nascar race? Which is likely to result in a bigger attendance increase...a first of it's kind thrill ride or the world's largest DC Comics themed area?

Six Flags and Cedar Fair have neither the financial resources nor the IP rights to build anything remotely as exciting as what can be found at the destination parks. However, for the most part they are amusement parks, not theme parks, and their visitors tend to expect thrill rides from them. Everytime I go to Six Flags Magic Mountain, I always find long lines for the roller coasters, yet their log flume (as well as every non-coaster ride in the park except Lex Luthor) constantly cycle empty seats. Even on busy days, their less intense coasters rarely have more than a two train wait. Knott's is similar, but not to the same extent, as they definitely attract more families than SFMM. Regardless of where the parks are located, I've seen similar trends among the various Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks, so when it's a choice between a multi-launched coaster and a dark ride full of cardboard cutouts, they'll always pick the coaster.

As far as coaster capacity being poor, that is more often than not a result of the park running only one train or having inefficient operators. Taken from RCDB, here are the theoretical capacities of some of Knott's coasters:

Boomerang: 760 riders per hour
GhostRider: 1,600 riders per hour
Jaguar!: 1,800 riders per hour
Montezooma's Revenge: 1,344 riders per hour
Silver Bullet: 1,300 riders per hour
Timberline Twister: 360 riders per hour
Xcelerator: 1,330 riders per hour

If you figure most major amusement park attractions are in the 1,400 to 1,700 rider per hour range, that's not all that bad. For the record, Knott's log flume has a theoretical capacity of 1,500 riders per hour, and this requires all 28 logs running with a 12 second dispatch interval and five riders per log. Normally, a 20 second interval is used and few logs have more than four riders, so the typical capacity is more like 720 riders per hour (closer to the standard flat ride range of 300 to 700 riders per hour). The only reason Knott's log flume has the highest ridership is because of the boost it recieves from Halloween Haunt, where the ride is given a maze overlay and has 2+ hour waits while operating at full capacity. It almost always has a shorter line than many of the coasters, even though their capacity is greater. While Disney does have some rides that can pull 2,500+ people an hour, outside of specially designed ride systems roller coasters are almost always the capacity kings at an amusement park.

January 8, 2013 at 5:41 PM · Brian: You are correct concerning the Exterminator. I should have included that also. Good ride and probably the longest lines in the park, even on non crowded days. TPI contributor Mike Gallagher has good things to say about the ride & park also. Kennywood has been designated a National Historical Landmark. And it keeps up with the times by continually adding new attractions. But it is on the small side, probably apx. 40 acres after adding their new land, Lost Kennywood (a recreation of the 1900 era Luna Park in Pittsburgh), a little over a decade ago. But they have as many attractions as the big regionals, but in a better landscaped setting than many of the big regionals. And the price is right. Tickets are in the mid $30's for a day with free parking.
January 8, 2013 at 6:55 PM · Great article...I was just thinking about this the other day...Disneyland itself offers 7 count em 7! water based rides, not including repeats like the canoes/Columbia. That's a lot of water based rides and those types of rides are so relaxing which makes them fun for everyone. 8 in the entire resort if you count grizzly river next door. Disneyland has such a wide variety of rides, that has to be one of the reasons of its monumental success!
January 8, 2013 at 8:17 PM · The reason regional amusement parks invest in roller coasters is because they're cheaper. But this is a short-sighted strategy because roller coaster fans are only a slice of the theme park market, thus excluding many other fans from enjoying a park. A mix of coaster, log/boat rides, dark rides, and even a couple of flats is what will draw a large audience in time and again. I like to go on a coaster or two when I visit a park, but I have no interest in visiting parks that almost exclusively emphasize coasters such Six Flags and Cedar Faire. There's a reason both have been through bankruptcy, and Disney, Universal and Legoland have not.
January 8, 2013 at 8:24 PM · This is one of the main factors that sets apart Universal and Disney from other parks. They don't just build high-speed roller coasters and intense flat-rides... They build attractions.

I'd take Revenge of the Mummy over the latest and greatest Cedar Fair roller coaster any day of the week.

January 8, 2013 at 9:50 PM · @Bryce, You should have been here during the 2009 Best Attraction Tournament when Revenge of the Mummy locked horns with Millennium Force. Man, that was something else!
January 8, 2013 at 10:56 PM · A couple of quick points: Six Flags Magic Mountain actually removed their Log Jammer last year (it had been with the park since opening in the 1970s), and is in the process of building a new roller coaster on the hillside where the log ride was located. From what I had read on other websites, the ridership had fallen quite a bit in recent years. Neither the Log Jammer or the still-remaining Jet Stream were heavily themed, but rather flume rides with a couple of drops around the scenic woody hillside of Magic Mountain.

Log flume rides are also a lot more family friendly than typical roller coasters. Roller coasters will often have a 42", 48", or even 52" height requirement, but most flume rides will let a small child sit with a parent or guardian.

We bought 2013 passes for Knott's Berry Farm in November, and the announcement of the Timber Mountain Log Ride refurbishment was on January 2nd. Our son, who is too old for many of the kids rides in Camp Snoopy, but has just gotten old enough to love (and not be scared of) the log ride. Unfortunately, he's not yet 48" tall, so he can't ride most of the roller coasters at Knotts, not even the tame ones (Jaguar, Pony Express). That five month refurbishment makes visits to Knotts that much less attractive.

January 8, 2013 at 11:26 PM · Coasters are high capacity, high profile, and relatively low cost when compared with their heavily themed counterparts. Many of the most heralded coasters on this site and others were built years ago for a fraction of Disney's ride budget and have drawn and entertained millions of people. It's a great return on investment for the parks who have limited markets and only a few months to make money. That's not to say they should be the entire portfolio, but they've been clicking the turnstiles for about 125 years now. A well designed coaster has pretty much always been a winner and probably always will be as long as there is innovation. Types of coasters may come and go, but what will never go away is the body's reaction to flying through the air. The anticipation, fear, adrenaline rush, and brain reward system is ages old.

I do think though that the time is coming when some of the regional parks will begin to diversify a little bit. Case in point, I don't think that Cedar Point and their sister parks will ever stop building coasters, but I definitely think that more and more attention is being paid to visual presentation of the park. Whether or not that will translate to more themed rides remains to be seen, but it stands to reason that a former Disney exec would bring some of that influence along with him to Cedar Fair.

Knotts has been suffering from a bit of an identity crisis lately. They aren't Magic Mountain and they aren't Disney. Perhaps a return to visuals and themes is just what they need.

January 9, 2013 at 3:06 PM · Bryce, that's a good point & many people would agree with you.

But for all us "attraction" people, there are plenty of roller coasting / thrill seeking types who prefer the latter.

As some mentioned before, some people love seeing a huge, twisty, sleek track of metal from the highway as they approach the park.

Some don't want story, they want an adrenaline rush.

And that's what parks like Six Flag excel in.....providing the alternative.....I wouldn't WANT to see a Six flags attempt a Disney or Universal type attraction...that's not who they're catering to.

January 9, 2013 at 5:12 PM · I don't understand why Cedar Fair has never invested in a dark ride featuring "The Peanuts" characters with animatronics. Something similar in to Cat in the Hat, or the Fantasyland line up. I always have felt the kid sections in these regional parks are underwhelming and lack probably the most important aspect of attending a theme park. That's being able to ride an attraction with all your family members. My example is Camp Snoopy at Knotts. There is maybe 2 or 3 attractions in the kid area that families can ride together. At least in Fantasyland or Seuss Landing nearly all the rides are family friendly, and I feel that's the key to a successful park. When a park is family friendly it should perform a lot better than a thrill park. Thrill parks just don't bring in the money spending parents and grandparents. I'm fine with a twisted mass of steel in a park, but I don't need to see one every other year in every former parking lot.
January 9, 2013 at 5:32 PM · These parks don't necessarily need to put in the E ticket dark rides. Attractions similar to a Peter Pan etc. shouldn't be all that expensive "outside" of the Disney realm of cost, which adds millions to the simplest of rides. I believe Ghostwood Estates at Kennywood, built a few years ago, was done for something around 1.5 to 2 million. That level of dark ride would be fine for the regional parks, and that would add to their family atmosphere.
January 9, 2013 at 8:52 PM · Supposedly, it cost Busch about $20 million to build Curse of DarKastle at BGW, and it was voted Best New Attraction of the Year in 2005 on TPI. So it really doesn't take a ton of money to build a good dark ride in a park other than a Disney and Universal park.

I like coasters, but sometimes you want to ride something that is good and entertaining without getting your brains scrambled.

January 9, 2013 at 10:24 PM · I thought the same thing myself. Dark Knight coaster, the worst rated roller coaster on the site, is also terrible in capacity.

My theory is that coasters do not need a backstory.

January 10, 2013 at 1:08 AM · They keep building coasters because they are much cheaper to build, compared to themed rides. Plus, you have to keep up in the "coaster wars".
January 10, 2013 at 6:08 AM · Log fumes dont have to be themed at all and a basic theme as typically done where the ride vehicle looks like block of wood is rather cheap. Log fumes can be built as standardiced rides just like coasters. Themeing like this one is a different story. As far as i am concerned, every bigger park should have at least one log fume. For me, Disneyland Paris always fealt incomplete. There is this gigantic great park, overshadowing everything else ever built in Europe and they dont have one while just about every other mid siced park has one.
January 10, 2013 at 8:06 PM · I would love to see Six Flags or Cedar Fair build a park in central Florida around the Disney/Universal area and then yes, have them build more dark rides or highly themed coasters themed to each of their respective characters(DC Comics & Looney Tunes for Six Flags and the Peanuts{Charlie Brown, Snoopy, etc.} for Cedar Fair). It would offer diversity from Disney, Universal & SeaWorld and at the same time be a gateway to introduce fans that only visit theme parks in Florida to those theme park chain's other parks throughout the country. Maybe its just too much wishful thinking.
January 11, 2013 at 1:02 PM · Here in the Uk, Alton Towers has done some great indoor dark rides - Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (Boat and Glass Elevator Simulator), Hex, Duel (Haunted Mansion), and Nemesis Sub-Terra while still adding coasters too - Th13teen, Nemesis, Air and now SW7 - perhaps a model some American Parks could follow...
January 11, 2013 at 11:48 PM · I agree 100% with every point you made here. I myself love roller coasters just like most people, but what makes my visits to Disney Parks so incredibly enjoyable is often not just the roller coaster attractions. I think that is one of the best things about Disney, yes they have roller coasters, but they also have water and dark rides that are often at the same or of higher quality than their roller coaster attractions, and thereby even more enjoyable. Also for the people who are going to all lengths to defend roller coasters, (I assume that most if not all of these people are in the teenage crowd,) perhaps you should read the article again and realize that Robert is far more correct than you are in actuality. A lot of people here are saying "well roller coasters of today are designed with batter capacity than Log Flumes." Which is true in theory, but not in reality. Most regional "theme" parks have unmotivated staff that do not dispatch a full train in a decent amount of time (more than two minutes.)A train of 20 people dispatched every two minutes (and yes, this is the case at many regional "theme" parks in reality) will get you 600 people per hour at best. Try comparing that with log flumes which have to be dispatched constantly and you should not have to be a mathematician to see why Robert is in the right here. Just something to think about.

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