Bigger, faster and more extreme are what count when it comes to roller coasters.
So what’s an amusement park to do with aging coasters when those record-breaking crowd pleasers from years ago are being overshadowed by today’s scream machines?
A coaster makeover, of course.
A handful of roller coasters are reopening this year after undergoing extensive rehabs now that innovations in the design of coaster tracks and trains are allowing theme parks to revive older rides saddled with shorter lines and soaring maintenance costs. Plus, it’s cheaper than building a coaster from the ground up.
Six Flags theme parks in New England and Southern California have transformed classic wooden coasters at each park by adding steel track that allows them to twist and flip upside down like never before.
Cedar Point amusement park along Lake Erie in Ohio freshened up its 20-year-old stand-up, steel coaster by switching to floorless-style trains.
“We felt there was a real opportunity to reinvent this coaster. It feels faster, it feels smoother, it’s a completely different experience,” said Jason McClure, the park’s general manager.
Until the last few years, there weren’t a lot of options for completely overhauling outdated roller coasters, especially those with wood tracks that had become too rough to ride as they aged.
That changed when Rocky Mountain Construction, a company that got its start repairing worn wood coaster tracks, came out with a way to put steel rails on wooden coaster structures.
“We’re basically remodeling the entire coaster,” said Amy Garcia, a spokeswoman for the company in Hayden, Idaho.
Its first major overhaul came in 2011 at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington with the Texas Giant, a ride that once ranked among the best among coaster enthusiasts before age caught up with it.
The $10 million renovation – about half the cost of building a new coaster – immediately won back fans.
Rocky Mountain Construction has since refurbished four other coasters, including two opening this coming weekend.
Wicked Cyclone at Six Flags New England in Agawam, Massachusetts, is transforming from a traditional wooden coaster formerly known as Cyclone into a steel hybrid that’s faster, steeper and twists riders through three inversions.
“Every year it’s newer, faster, bigger. We need to evolve and stay with the times,” said Jennifer McGrath, a park spokeswoman.
Colossus – the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster when it opened in 1978 at Six Flags Magic Mountain near Los Angeles – is getting the same treatment, becoming Twisted Colossus.
The original coaster is one of the more recognizable rides around, featured in more than a dozen TV shows and movies, including “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” But its appeal dwindled as it was dwarfed by the park’s bigger and “badder” steel coasters.
The new steel-hybrid version has over-banked turns and inversions, including one billed as a “Top Gun Stall” where the coaster train slows down while upside down.
“This brings it into the next generation and makes it relevant for years to come,” said Magic Mountain President Bonnie Rabjohn. “It really brings it back in vogue.”
Robb Alvey, who has been on over 1,400 coasters around the world and operates ThemeParkReview.com, said the roller coasters that have been turned into new rides were already nearing the end of their life cycle.
“They’re also rides with great history that most people would rather see a new life put into them rather than taking them down,” he said.
Those within the theme park industry expect to see more recycling of roller coasters.
“It gives a park something new to market and talk about in a much cheaper way,” said Dennis Spiegel, a theme-park consultant and president of International Theme Park Services Inc. in Cincinnati. “If you can rehabilitate an existing coaster and give a new experience, then you’re ahead of the cost game.”
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