Day 187: Coasters Who Roll No More

originally published July 5, 2012

Why do I pour so much research into my daily article (sometimes)? Why do I willingly sacrifice so many precious minutes of my day that could otherwise be spent immersed in the drugless high of binaural beats, or online-stalking Carson Daly? Because I love my audience, that’s why. Also, I like to pretend that someone is paying me to do this. Keeps me from getting punchy.

There are 99 Wikipedian pages in the category of defunct roller coasters. I looked at every one of them, hoping to unearth the elusive truth as to what allows a coaster to survive in this age when the thrill of a well-conceived Nic Cage meme appears to be enough to inspire the exhilaration of young people.

My countless minutes of research have uncovered a few conclusions. First, some coasters were really interesting, but economics and circumstance killed them. Second, some were a sketchy idea to begin with. Third, don’t mess with Mother Nature, because She secretly hates humans and aims to destroy them. And their silly coasters. And lastly, when people are seriously hurt or killed, your ride probably needs to unload its passengers and go home.

Let’s start with some of the weaker ideas.

The idea of the Centrifugal Railway dates back to the 1840s when British ride designers Hutchinson and Higgins concocted a way to flip passengers upside down on what passed for coaster technology. A single wheeled car would be dragged up the hill, loaded with passengers, then released to let gravity provide the thrills.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t a string of entrail-smearing disasters that killed the Centrifugal Railway – these things were tested extensively before opened to the public. It was more a lack of interest. The public wanted thrills, but not this particular thrill. By the end of the 19th century, these rides were scarce.

“The Bat”, whose logo would look at home on an album cover by Triumph, or possibly Asia, was a poorly-designed suspended coaster that operated at King’s Island in Ohio for about five minutes.

Actually, it lasted a whopping two years. The shock absorbers wore out. There were cracks in the steel structure. The ride was closed more than it was open, and park owners did the right thing by cutting their losses and dismantling “The Bat” for good in 1984.

If you have a few free minutes and feel like checking out the landscape of your next nightmare, plug ‘Six Flags New Orleans’ into a Google image search. These are the coasters whom Nature has forsaken. I tracked down three that looked interesting. The Zydeco Scream was a steel coaster that hauled cars backwards up a long ramp, then let them fly through a series of twists, turns and loops before being pulled forward up the last hill and let loose to run the same track backwards. Coasters like this are a good test of one’s stomach’s ability to adequately maintain its cargo.

The Jester was an import from Six Flags Texas. Youtube is a magnificent source for front-car POV videos of great roller coasters, but since this ride went dark before the glory days of online videos, the best I can do is this reel, shot by some guy on the ground. As you can see, it’s a typical steel coaster, complete with corkscrews, helixes and a loop. Except all the cars are pointed backwards. I would have loved this coaster. Lastly from Six Flags N.O., there’s the Mega-Zeph. Once a proud wooden monster that was the pride of Jazzland (the theme park on the site before Six Flags grabbed control), Mega-Zeph is decaying and crumbling. Hurricane Katrina flooded this theme park in 2005, and nothing in it has reopened since.

There’s hope that Mega-Zepth may still inspire the shrieks of children and wayward hobos (hobos love a thrill as much as the next, non-hobo guy). Plans are in place to turn this derelict theme park into an outlet mall, incorporating some of the amusement park’s remnants, including the massive wooden coaster.

Now we come to the ugly stuff. The coasters that were put down for biting their customers. Rides like this:

The Pipeline Express in Grand Prairie, Texas, flung a 12-year-old girl 35 feet into an unused pool of water in 1992, causing a coma and brain damage. This all occurred a month and a half after the ride opened. It never operated again.

Astro Storm is a Space Mountain knock-off that operated in Blackpool, England. The ride runs indoors, mostly in the dark. It features space-ish things, like glowing stars, pictures of aliens, and something that looks like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. In 2000, an eleven-year-old got scared on the ride, unbuckled his seatbelt, and plunged to his death. This killer is still on the loose, now relocated to Brean, England.

The Derby Racer, whose home was in Revere, Massachusetts, had a figure-8 shape. It sent two coaster cars off at the same time on side-by-side tracks. The coaster opened in 1911 and achieved a death toll of three before the state Supreme Court sued the coaster’s operator in 1935. The Derby Racer was torn down and rebuilt (with the same name, because who’d remember?) in 1937.

The 1987 death on Lightnin’ Loops at Six Flags in New Jersey had nothing to do with ride design. Some sub-minimum-wage moron forgot to check that everyone’s harness was secure, causing a 19-year-old girl to plunge 75 feet to her death. The park was fined $1000 in negligence, because that’ll teach ‘em.

The Python opened up at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay with the slogan “I challenged the Python and lived!” They opted to drop that slogan when a 39-year-old heart patient died from riding the Python. That’s ridiculous – if anything, that lends further bragging rights to surviving the ride. The ride was retired in 2006, after a 30-year career.

Lastly there’s the Lightning, located nearby the deadly Derby Racer at Revere Beach. The Lightning took its first rider’s soul before the end of its second day of operation; a little girl fell to her death. Park owners were courteous – they shut down the ride for twenty full minutes so they could cart the body away.

The Lightning was known as a ‘rib-tickler’ because the violent side-to-side forces could bruise riders’ ribs. The Lightning was so brutal, the expression “take her on the Lightning” was coined as a joke-remedy for terminating pregnancies. I am not making that up.

The Lightning was turned off permanently after only six years, in 1933.

Okay, a quick moment to pay respects to some pretty great-looking rides that just didn’t make it:

The Scenic Railway was short on wild thrills, but as the oldest roller coaster in the UK (a brake-man had to ride with each train to employ the manual brakes – best job ever!), it was a piece of history. I think you can guess what killed it.

The Big Bad Wolf at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg was a suspended coaster that flew passengers through near-misses in a Bavarian village, then flung them in an arc over the Rhine River. I have no idea why it closed down.

The Thunderbolt lasted from 1925 through 1982 at Coney Island, but simply couldn’t keep up with the fame of her neighbor, the original Cyclone. That little shack on the right was purported to be Alvy Singer’s childhood home in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Strangely enough, it actually was a residence.

Son Of Beast was one of the most famous coasters in America when it opened. It was the tallest, fastest, longest, and only looping wooden roller coaster on the planet. The ride doled out a smattering of injuries, and its expensive upkeep has left it sitting silent since 2009, taunting Kings Island theme park guests with 2:20 of fun they can’t have. This is a real shame; looking at the above video, it seems like this might be the most perfect wooden coaster I’ve ever seen.

Finally there’s the High Roller coaster, which once crowned the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, nearly 1000 feet in the air. Due to its cramped quarters, the coaster wasn’t much on speed or thrills, apart from the danger of being in a moving vehicle hundreds of feet above the Strip. Once other rides were added to the rooftop, it was decided that the High Roller was the least popular of the bunch, and had to go.

Those are the best of the bunch I could find. Please disembark from the article safely once it has come to a complete stop, and the safety harnesses have been released. That would be now.

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