Roller coaster sector celebrates 125 years of innovation
Long considered the “bread and butter” of the theme park industry, the year 2010 marks the 125th anniversary of the world’s first roller coaster patent. Now, as this core attractions sector continues to grow and diversify, Adrian Lennox takes a look back at how track-based amusements have developed over the years and what manufacturers believe will happen to the roller coaster sector in the future
THE roller coaster, perhaps more than any other amusement attraction, embodies everything a theme park sets out to achieve: imposing grandeur, unbridled excitement and the ability to take visitors to the dizzy heights of excess. So synonymous has the roller coaster sector become with the world theme park industry that it would be hard to imagine even the humblest of venues without some kind of track ride – let alone those sprawling mixed-use venues, for which the latest generation of high-tech mega-installations act as a totem of sorts, presiding over the guests and tempting them to push the envelope of human experience just that little bit further.
The history of the roller coaster can be traced back to basic ice slides constructed in 17th century Russia. Becoming popular with the upper classes around Saint Petersburg, the “rides” were built to heights of around 21 m, consisted of a 50-degree drop and were reinforced by wooden supports. Across the Atlantic in the early 19th century, a mining company in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania, constructed the Mauch Chunk gravity railroad, a brakeman-controlled, 14km downhill track used to deliver coal to a nearby town. By the 1850s, the “Gravity Road” – as it became known – was providing rides to thrill-seekers for 50 cents a time.
However, it was not until LaMarcus Adna Thompson came onto the scene that the first true roller coasters began to flood the burgeoning US attractions market. In 1884, Thompson, an inventor and businessman from Ohio, opened the Switchback Railway at Coney Island in New York. Passengers climbed to the top of a platform and rode a bench-like car down the 180m track up to the top of another tower where the vehicle was switched to a return track and the passengers took the return trip. Thompson was granted the first roller coaster patent for his design the following year.
Since this time, the roller coaster sector has grown and diversified at a phenomenal pace, from gravity railroad systems, to single-car Wild Mouse-style rides; from the rise of the steel monoliths pioneered in the 1950s by Disney to enclosed coasters that travel underground and underwater; and from the opportunities presented by inverted tracks to the cutting-edge technologies involved in constructing the latest “four-dimensional” experiences.
An attempt to provide a comprehensive list of the full range of different roller coasters would be futile, as the ride formats vary almost as much as the venues that house them. However, this defining issue of diversity is something that continues to thread through the sector and is one that has helped keep the immense structures firmly secure in the grounds of theme parks. Indeed, while the cost of contemporary coaster projects continues to rise, both operators and manufacturers are certain the attractions will continue to have pride of place in all amusement venues, both large and small.
“Roller coasters are still a highlight and core element of the amusement and theme park industry,” said Anna Novikova, deputy director of international development for Pax Design in Russia. “Being not only a manufacturer but also an operator, Pax believes that roller coasters of various designs can be attractive for different target groups in a park.”
Giulio Demaria, president of Italy-based InterPark Amusements, added: “The roller coaster is the main attraction of every theme park and this is shown by the fact that every park in the world installs at least one roller coaster. The more original and innovative the project, the more successful it will be.”
Size is important
Roller coasters play an important role in the modern theme park experience, not least in the fact that their sheer size helps to provide that all-important ‘Wow!’ factor – the imposing, noisy, gravity-defying attractions are totally in keeping with amusement venues’ desire to stimulate the senses in a hard and fast manner. According to Demaria, operators’ requests for roller coasters can generally be split in two – the core family rides and those that are continually striving to become bigger and better.
“Since 1975 the branch of roller coasters has modified its features, conforming to the tastes of the users,” he said. “We have seen the requests for thrilling coasters rather than for family coasters to rise in the most advanced countries because the target has focused on the range of young people. But the majority of the production is still steadily based on the family coasters, which represent the tradition.”
Interestingly, Annik Seeg, arts director for Maurer Sohne Rides in Germany, said her company has started to notice a subtle difference in terms of contemporary coaster manufacturing.
“Whereas in the past, newly erected roller coasters needed to be ‘faster, higher and bigger’ to attract the eyes of the public, nowadays the attitude to roller coasters has changed,” she said. “The record-breaking aspects have been displaced by the riding experience, which is closely connected to the layout of the track.
“Today it is far more important to have a ride which is perfectly suitable for the location and theming of the park. Even more compact rides with fewer inversions have the chance to become the public’s favourite if they are constructed and customised to the needs of each park’s conditions.”
Peter van Bilsen, senior vice-president of marketing and sales for Netherlands-based Vekoma Rides Manufacturing, places a similar focus on new technological developments in his initial considerations of today’s coaster industry.
“Roller coasters have been opening up new horizons and each year new technologies are developed to make them more innovative and comfortable and also more exciting,” he commented. “As a supplier, we try to be innovative but also follow the trends. With our modular train system we can basically offer the right attraction in each category.”
Safety first, branding second
Safety, of course, has always been paramount when it comes to roller coaster design and development. And indeed, modern technological safety developments have enabled the roller coaster sector to soar to previously unthinkable heights. Sascha Czibulka, vice-president of Intamin Transportation, noted one of the many ways in which roller coaster manufacturers have turned to other industries in order to improve the safety of their products.
“One good example is the use of magnetic brakes, which were initially developed and employed in the transportation industry on moving railways,” he said.
“Roller coasters become more and more comfortable and safe over the years,” added Novikova. “The industry pays great attention not only to the external appearance, thrill factors and the overall entertainment of modern roller coasters, but also to their ultimate safety for passengers and excluding of any discomfort factors.
“In Russia, we promote the establishing of new safety standards and governmental regulations and we expect that a new law will soon come into effect, making amusement park rides safer. Safety is first and foremost for the roller coaster and amusement industry as a whole. As roller coasters are the most sophisticated devices, they require state-of-the-art safety features. Undoubtedly, new developments in the safety of roller coasters have an effect on the entire theme park/leisure facility.”
Seeg notes that while technological developments continue to help the roller coaster sector evolve and change, issues surrounding licensing and branding are also having a major effect.
“Licensing has already become a serious factor concerning the layout of modern roller coasters. For example, if you want to simulate the feeling of driving a sports car, what would be more obvious than trying to brand a ride according to a manufacturer of sports vehicles?
“Yes, this is still a development in process and the traditional coasters have not been abolished altogether, although you can say that with the help of brands unique rides can be realised. Having the opportunity to establish partnerships between famous, popular brands and an amusement park’s ride enables it to gather more expertise and money in order to realise the project in the most realistic way possible.”
Czibulka adds to this, stating: “The licensing or branding of a roller coaster can be positive or equally negative. A good example where it worked perfectly is Superman: The Escape at Warner Bros. Movie World, Australia. The coaster itself is fantastic, but together with the well-known character and the story line it is a highly acclaimed attraction, which increases the overall experience to a maximum. However, if the ride system itself is not meeting the visitor’s expectations created by the branding, the whole attraction may leave kind of a bad taste.”
“Licensing and branding will enhance the ride experience since with the right branding a total experience is offered to the guest,” said Bilsen. “The very well-known brands offer a high marketing value. Although this mostly pays off for the parks, the original investment in theming and licensing will be more expensive and sometimes is a hurdle in the decision making process.”
The future’s bright, yet unclear
Since the first roller coaster patent was signed 125 years ago, this unique sector has gone from strength to strength. In terms of theming, LaMarcus Adna Thompson was quick to realise the benefits brought about by simply adding dark tunnels and painting picturesque scenes around his early track rides. This has now developed into multi-million dollar licensing deals that serve to marry the biggest and most exciting rides with some of the most lucrative global brands.
Looking ahead, both manufacturers and operators were reticent to offer any firm predictions regarding the future shape of the roller coaster industry. However – as has become clear over the past 125 years – it is precisely this not knowing that keeps us coming back for that Next Big Thrill.
“It is not easy to foresee the new borders and much will depend on the developments and discoveries of new components and applications – both technical and scientific,” said Demaria. “We can, however, assume that the new applications will seek to conjure specific emotions through factors such as the acceleration of departure, the speed and the most complicated of evolutions.”
Bilsen continued: “With the current economic crisis it is very difficult to predict what will happen, as it depends on which type of investments are available, feasible and responsible. In the emerging markets we expect growth to continue and in the existing markets the parks will focus on positioning themselves to create a competitive edge. Affordable new and innovative roller coaster rides will always be interesting for any theme park.”
“We think that advanced materials and technologies will be extensively used for the roller coaster sector,” added Novikova. “This can be new lighting or illumination technologies, new decoration materials other than “old” concrete, etc. We expect that 3D and 4D technologies will be also be applied as specific trends in the roller coaster sector.”
When asked about the future of roller coasters, Czibulka said: “This indeed is the million dollar question! Like in past decades, we certainly will see further technological sophistication as well as new features and even more impressive performance data. At the same time the above mentioned trends will play a key role for the operators, when it comes to the purchase decision – sophistication/spectacular/uniqueness, appeal to a wide ridership and space efficiency.”
COMPANY SPOTLIGHT: PAX DESIGN
IN the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was a defence-oriented and ideology-minded state with an underdeveloped leisure and amusement sector. Whereas dozens of beautiful theme parks were built in America and Europe, they were virtually unavailable in the USSR, which was restricted to around 600 small carnival-type parks which were, as a rule, outdated, especially compared to ambitious projects elsewhere.
On July 9, 1988, free-enterprising activity was allowed by law, and 15 days afterwards the world saw the birth of Pax Design. The group was incorporated by Vladimir Gnezdilov, who had previously been involved in space engineering, and quickly grew to become one of Europe’s leading roller coaster manufacturers.
In 1988, Pax produced and erected Russia’s first steel roller coaster and the following year a ride 12m high and 400m long was manufactured and installed at Izmailovo Park in Moscow, where it turned out to be an immediate success.
In 1992, the firm designed, built and started operating Russia’s first looping coaster in Gorky Park, Moscow, while 1993 marked the company’s first overseas expansion after it exported a coaster to Costa Rica.
From 2000 to 2010 more than 100 amusement rides were produced and installed in Russia and around the world, including such major roller coasters as Camel Trophy in Saudi Arabia, an indoor coaster in Bahrain, a Formula Pax coaster in France and a Wild Train-14 roller coaster in Austria. A custom-designed looping roller coaster is being completed this year in Switzerland.
PROJECT FOCUS: S&S WORLDWIDE, INC.
LONG recognised as the developer of some of the world’s most technologically advanced roller coasters on the planet, S&S Worldwide has announced plans to build a “fourth-dimension” coaster at Dinosaur Park in Changzhou, China.
Unlike traditional roller coasters where trains only run parallel to the track, the Utah-based group’s 4D coaster sends riders around a 3,600ft maze of steel track aboard large, wing-shaped trains.
The seats extend off the track to the sides of the vehicle, allowing the passengers to be independently rotated head over heels and forwards and backwards. The ride’s 360-degree rotating seats move the passengers independently, creating head-first, face-down drops.
“This amazing coaster takes riders on a journey to an unchartered dimension of extreme that only the 4th Dimension can deliver,” said Kevin Rohwer, vice-president of sales and marketing for S&S.
“We appreciate yet another opportunity to build and install this incredible coaster and we anticipate that the amusement industry will be very excited about its upcoming installation.”
The as-yet-unnamed Dinosaur Park ride – which is known as X2 at Six Flags in California and as Eejanaika at Fujikyu Highlands in Japan – is set to open in 2011.