#54) Tale of four roller coasters (why size doesn’t always matter)




Roller coasters are not only fun, they’re also educational.  They are living lessons of architecture, art and physics.  On our eighth grade graduation trip to Riverside Park (now Six Flags New England) in Agawam, MA, our sales pitch to get our science teacher to ride the “Cyclone” was that if he puked, he would be able to tell how fast it was going when it hit the ground.  But I digress.

Coasters can also provide interesting lessons in business and marketing.  That brings us to the four main players of this story:

The Thunderhawk, formerly the Coaster, at Dorney Park, Allentown, PA

Hercules, Dorney Park

The Beast, Kings Island, Cincinnati

Son of Beast, Kings Island

Dorney’s small wooden roller coaster was built in 1923, and has always been a favorite of enthusiasts.  While bigger, shinier, faster and more expensive coasters have popped up throughout the world, many mavens cherish Dorney’s coaster as a throwback to the golden age of wooden roller coasters.

Needless to say, the Great Depression was not kind to amusement parks.  Even post-war prosperity didn’t help the majority of America’s small amusement parks, as larger attractions like Disneyland became dominant.  But through it all, Dorney’s coaster still delivered thrills to customers.

In the early 1970s, a park called Kings Island opened near Cincinnati, replacing the Coney Island park that had been damaged by floods.  The Racer, a wooden coaster featured on an episode of “The Brady Bunch”, was an instant hit, and in the late 1970s, construction started on a new ride.  When The Beast opened in 1979, it was the tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster in the world.  Although the unorthodox coaster has drawn its share of criticisms (mainly toward the second lift hill, leading to a drop at a mere 18 degree angle, only to hit the brakes at the station), the ride has been a huge success.

In 1989, Dorney Park opened Hercules.  While the ride was not longer or taller than the Beast, its location on a hillside allowed it to break one of the Ohio coaster’s records: height of drop.  While the coaster’s hill was only 95 feet tall, the drop set a wooden coaster record at 157 feet, leading into a wide turn over the water.

Not to be outdone, Kings Island opened Son of Beast in 2000.  At 218 feet, it was the tallest wooden coaster in the world, and had something that no “woodie” before it did: a vertical loop.  (Interestingly, the track was deliberately designed to be about 300 feet shorter than that of the Beast, allowing the older ride to keep its record as the longest wooden coaster.)

But as it would turn out, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The smaller Coaster, now renamed the Thunderhawk, proved to be a more popular attraction at Dorney than Hercules, which closed in 2003.  Son of Beast would last only a decade.  In 2006, the vertical loop was removed, but the ride still suffered from maintenance problems.  In 2009, a woman claimed to have suffered a head injury on the ride.  Although the circumstances of her claim were questionable, and although inspections of the ride found no irregularities, Son of Beast was closed as a precaution, and never re-opened.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to consider the fates of these rides.  Just as the movie industry has low-budget “sleepers” that beat the odds, and high-budget blockbusters that bomb, the same concept can be applied to amusement parks.  Innovations that seem exciting sometimes lose out to time-tested traditions; grand spectacle sometimes falls to simple pleasures.

It might be a reach to say that the slowing economy influenced the fall of Son of Beast, but amusement parks do depend on discretionary income, and it’s not unreasonable to think that some might have seen the 200-foot plus ride as a monument of excess.  As for the rider who claimed the head injury, her story was a lot more credible than had the incident happened on the Woodstock Express coaster (formerly known as Scooby Doo.)

But the Thunderhawk and Beast chug on.  While the former lies in the shadow of the enormous Steel Force coaster, it has survived the Great Depression and looks like it will survive the Great Recession to celebrate its 100th birthday in ten years.  And for its criticisms, the Beast continues to deliver the goods, proving that its impressive statistics were more than just novelties.

For a video of a front-seat ride on the Beast, click here.

For a video of Hercules, click here.

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