Since the advent of the first tubular steel roller coaster – the Matterhorn at Disneyland, which opened in 1959 – thrill rides and coasters in particular have become increasingly more daring. Advances in engineering and track design have allowed coasters to perform acrobatic inversions, reach unprecedented speeds, and climb to dizzying heights.
Over the past 25 years or so, “coaster wars” have been in full swing. Parks have competed to open the first coasters peaking over 200, 300, and 400 feet. They’ve raced to erect rides with more inversions than any previous attraction, to reach new speeds and angles of descent, with new and unique elements that would have seemed impossible a couple decades ago. In the last 10 years alone, coasters have achieved the following:
- A maximum height of 456 feet, held since 2005 by Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.
- A maximum speed of 149 miles per hour, achieved in 2010 by Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
- 14 inversions in one ride, on the Smiler at Alton Towers in the United Kingdom, which opened in 2013. (Note – the Smiler is currently not operating pending the investigation of a June, 2015 accident.)
- A 121-degree drop, the steepest of any coaster (yes, it curves back in on itself), a record held by Takabisha at Fuji-Q Highland theme park in Japan.
Many other records exist, too; a lot of them are niche-specific. Often these niche record-holders are highly advertised and provide great marketing for their parks. The question is, does the ride experience live up to the marketing hype?Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, recently announced a niche record breaker for 2016. When it opens next year, Lightning Rod will be the world’s fastest wooden roller coaster, as well as the only wooden roller coaster with a launch. On the surface, that sounds impressive. Until, that is, one realizes that Lightning Rod’s top speed of 73mph is only one point higher than Goliath at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois, also a wooden coaster, which tops out at 72mph.
The semantics of these coaster wars and the marketing implications that fuel them run the risk of overshadowing the actual facts of the ride experience, both for roller coasters and other amusement park attractions. T-shirts, commercials, and billboards for Lightning Rod will undoubtedly tout the “fastest wooden roller coaster” achievement. While the statement is not inaccurate, it ignores what will really make this coaster great. One major element, for example, will see the coaster slalom down the side of a mountain in a daring “quadruple-down” maneuver that will shoot it excitingly close to the surrounding terrain. The overall ride experience looks thrilling. The fact of Lightning Rod being the fastest wooden coaster, though, will be imperceptible during the ride experience in comparison to those that rank just behind it on the record list.
So, should you be wooed by the record-breaking rides?
Well, it depends. The adrenaline rush on coasters like Kingda Ka and Top Thrill Dragster is intense. In those instances, their current and former record-breaking qualities directly influence the ride experience. In fact, those qualities define the ride experience.
With Lightning Rod, not so much. Instead, the coaster will be defined by the creative way it interacts with Dollywood’s mountainous terrain, along with the unexpected launch at the beginning of the ride and the thrilling “near misses” that will keep riders guessing throughout the course.
Those qualities don’t depend on speed or height. Such is the case with many other rides. Many of us are tempted to flock to a park’s advertised and/or record-breaking rides, and those are usually awesome attractions, but don’t do so at the exclusion of rides with less sexy marketing. Often, those rides are just as great in their own ways.
Below is a preview of Lightning Rod from Dollywood. What do you think – a must ride for 2016?