In our recent series about the history of roller coasters, we looked at six key rides that launched the amusement industry into a new era. From the Matterhorn Bobsleds revolutionizing the steel coaster to Magnum XL-200 starting the “Roller Coaster Wars,” the industry has been constantly changing as new and better roller coasters are introduced. Over the past decade, it’s become clear that we’ve reached the end of the Roller Coaster Wars. Kingda Ka has stood as the world’s tallest roller coaster since 2006, and with forces as high as they are on Formula Rossa, it seems unlikely that any ride will break 150 miles per hour. With the race of the record-breaking steel coaster drawing to a close, what trends can we expect from the amusement industry going forward?
Polercoasters: Reaching new heights in a fraction of the space
Kingda Ka’s long reign just might come to an end after all. Manufacturers have developed a new ride type, called a Polercoaster, that will take thrills to a whole new level—literally. Polercoasters are built around a large central pole, allowing them to spiral hundreds of feet into the air without taking up a large footprint. Rather than relying on the unreliable hydraulic launch system found Intamin’s accelerator coasters, Polercoasters can be lifted to the top of the hill relatively quickly using an LSM launch. The return journey to the ground is full of swooping inversions, overbanked turns, and beyond vertical drops.
Skyscraper, the first Polercoaster in development, is currently under construction in Miami, Florida. When it opens, it will stand 570 feet tall, more than 100 feet taller than Kingda Ka.
Launches: Replacing lift hills on all types of rides
Manufacturers are always coming up with new ways to start a ride, and the latest trend in the industry seems to be adding launch sections to coasters that would traditionally have lift hills. Thunderbird became the first launched wing coaster in 2015, and last year Lightning Rod premiered as the world’s first launched wooden coaster. Now Phantasialand’s new ride is following suit to become the first launched flying coaster. What’s next? Launched inverts? Time will tell.
Virtual Reality: Immersive theming and interactive experiences
What if you could interact with a virtual world while experiencing the wild forces on a roller coaster? Now, you can, thanks to many theme parks that have partnered with virtual reality companies to bring an immersive storyline synced perfectly with the movements of their roller coasters. Many Six Flags parks have added an optional VR experience to their rides, and parks like Alton Towers and SeaWorld Orlando have given their aging coasters a refreshed theme using virtual reality.
Most coaster enthusiasts fall into one of two lines of thought when it comes to virtual reality on roller coasters: Either they embrace the capabilities of tech with this much potential, or they see the idea of a “virtual” experience as repulsive. Though I have yet to ride a roller coaster with a VR option, I find myself leaning towards the second camp. After all, why wouldn’t you want to enjoy the actual ride, taking in the ride’s height and speed, enjoying the scenery, and sharing your experience with the other screaming riders around you? It makes sense from a monetary perspective for a theme park to use virtual reality instead of putting in full-scale theming, but a VR headset can never capture the authenticity of reality. On the other hand, as long as the virtual reality is offered as an optional experience, I see no harm in amusement parks using VR to bring renewed interest to their less popular rides.
Wooden Coaster Wars
While steel coasters may not have changed much over the past five years, wooden coasters have taken a dramatic plunge into innovation. Utilizing modern technology, wooden coasters are now able to take on complex maneuvers formerly limited to steel track. Rocky Mountain Construction’s Outlaw Run became the first successful inverting wooden coaster in 2013, and since then we’ve seen all kinds of woodies with inversions.
Wooden coasters are getting faster and steeper, too. With a first-of-its-kind launch, Lightning Rod reaches a top speed of 73 miles per hour, and Goliath at Six Flags Great America features a stunning 85° drop. While it’s unlikely that wooden coasters will ever catch up with the stats on steel ones, they’re certainly advancing into unprecedented territory.
Will a wooden coaster ever break the 200-foot height barrier? Since Son of Beast’s dramatic failure, it seems as if the concept of a wooden hypercoaster has become a taboo in the industry. Perhaps, with time, we’ll see a 200-foot wooden coaster again.
The Rise of the IBox Coaster
Rough and rickety wooden coasters are becoming a thing of the past, as amusement parks have begun hiring Rocky Mountain Construction to transform their coasters into wild steel hybrids with inversions, airtime hills, and overbanked turns. In a matter of months, these coasters rise from neglected to respected, leaving almost nothing to remind guests of the ride’s former condition.
Six Flags has given many of their most rundown woodies the “IBox” treatment, and Cedar Fair is now joining in on the fun by transforming Mean Streak at Cedar Point and Hurler at Kings Dominion. In time, the chains will be completely rid of their dying wooden giants.
The astonishing rate at which these rough wooden coasters are disappearing begs the question: Is the traditional wooden coaster a thing of the past? Rest assured, many manufacturers like GCI and The Gravity Group are still hard at work designing classic wooden coasters, and traditional rides like Cyclone at Luna Park aren’t going anywhere. But many wooden coasters designed in the early ’90s were built solely to set records, and they simply haven’t aged well. Amusement parks have to choose between spending thousands of dollars each year maintaining the rides, or demolishing them altogether. The glory of the IBox model is that Rocky Mountain Construction is able to redeem a wooden coaster that was already going downhill, and provide a thrilling experience that guests can enjoy for generations to come.
In summary, the current focus in the amusement industry seems less interested in constantly adding bigger and faster coasters, but centered more on bringing technological advancements to older ride types. Wooden coasters are being pushed to their limits as they add inversions, and looping coasters are getting a fresh twist by starting with a launch.
Parks also seem bent on bringing new life to their aging coasters, whether it’s by adding a virtual reality option, transforming a rough wooden coaster, or converting a stand-up model to a floorless design. Sure, you’ll see an occasional record-breaker like Skyscraper, but I find it interesting that the main focus is about the improvement of older roller coasters.
What trends do you think we’ll see in the amusement industry over the next decade? Do you agree that we’re in a season where manufacturers are mainly bringing new life to older designs rather than developing new ones? Let’s start a conversation. Share your thoughts below.
Read next: Looking Ahead to the Coasters of 2018