Friday, April 2, 2010

The Great Steel Monster

Today is April 4th, an important date for many Worlds of Fun and roller coaster fans, it was the date, 30 years ago that one of of Worlds of Fun's greatest coasters, if not its greatest was launched on the world. Orient Express.

Ten years ago I was left with the same blank screen to fill with words about this great ride and the memories it brings to mind. That was it's 20th anniversary, when it's trademark lifthill sound could still be heard around the park. Today its been seven years since the Express was brought down.

Instead of dwelling on the end though, lets dwell on the beginning. It could be said that Orient Express not only followed a great lineage of coasters, but also started a new lineage. Built by Arrow Dynamics of Mountain View, CA, the company that pioneered the tubular steel coaster with the Matterhorn at Disneyland, had built pretty small up until 1978. That's when another coaster, the Loch Ness Monster debuted at Busch Gardens Old Country (Williamsburg, Europe, whatever). Called Nessie for short, Loch Ness was the companies truly first great monster coaster. It was the first coaster (of only three total) to have interlocking loops, and with the similiarities of the two rides, and their parks, no story on Orient Express can be written without mentioning Loch Ness.

Loch Ness under construction at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA. Notice the similar, yet different interlocking loops. Orient Express structure would be slightly different featuring the "latice" structure on the top loop, but the more modern "post" structure on the bottom loop.

Probably sometime around the construction of Loch Ness, Lamar Hunt and Jack Steadman started examining possibilities for what would become the Orient Express. For years they rode coasters, compared notes, and planned. The plan for the Express was to re-invest the profits from the parks' proceeding years, and with the 1979 season attracting more then any proceeding season (1.3 Million), the money was there to build the biggest, baddest, scream machine in the world.

Early concept art for Orient Express. Notice the art work here is done by the same artist who designed the 1973 souvenir map.

Construction begins, Orient Express track is stacked neatly in the background awaiting construction.

The lift hill under construction. You can also see the turn into the second loop in the background.

Construction is nearly done, see the Havens Steel crane. This same photo (cropped) was used for the Haven Steel ad in the 1980 Great Times magazine.

Interesting enough, the park management team's primary concern wasn't beating records, but building the best around. A ride with no slow spots, a ride that provided thrills by the second. And that's exaclty what they got.

Up until that time coasters were pretty much small, especially compared on today's scale of things. Zambezi Zinger and Screamroller (later Extremeroller) were the two biggest rides in town. The speedy Zinger boasted a speed of 42 MPH, Orient Express was 65 MPH. Screamroller provided a quick 60 second joy ride, Orient Express thrashed riders through almost three times that length of time.

With such a big new ride, Hunt Midwest also made the decision to increase admission, up to a $10.50, with season passes running $34.95 (I would love to get ahold of those prices today!) Riders would run towards Express after paying their admission and for good reason, busy Saturdays would almost always top 20,000 people! The Express crews were usually up to the task though, and Orient Express ran capacities that can only today be touched by Mamba. (Express all time capacity high was 21,000 in ONE HOUR!) It like Mamba had the capacity to run three trains with 28 people per train. It unlike Mamba, did not have the brakes to HOLD all the trains. Mamba has the ability to hold a train in the station and two outside. Orient Express could only hold one in the station, and only ONE outside! With the impossibility of stacking two trains loading was quick. It also lead to some unique stories, ending many times with trains literally having to be pushed out of the station!

Two trains on the course equals three trains total!

Once out of the station, the train and its riders would enter the darkened 100 foot tunnel, a forbidding start to a ride themed after a murder mystery tale. The train would start its journey up the 260 foot long, 217 foot tall lift hill. Guests on the walkways below could look up and hear the monstrous beast. Even to this day I can still hear the warm clink clink clink of the Orient Express lift hill in the back of my mind as I enter the park. Once up top riders would plunge into the first of four gut-wrenching, stomach in the mouth drops, 115 feet down at a 55 degree angle. Then it would be through the two eighty foot tall interlocking loops.

the infamous Kamikaze Kurve.

. The ride wouldn't stop there. Orient Express's greatest legacy was what came next, the Kamikaze Kurve, or Boomerang element as it came to be known, a half corkscrew, half loop concoction. Before Express, coasters had two upside down modes, corkscrews and loops. the KKK (nickname given by Paul Hohl and its an appropriate acroynmn, KamiKaze Kurve) threw not only the riders but the designers for a loop. This unique, state of the art design also became Orient Express's downfall.

Orient Express was a hit out of the gates. It all by itself propelled Worlds of Fun to the top of the heap, with the 1980 season culminating in the 2nd highest crowd recorded at the park as of 1980, 24,206. In the years that followed even higher capacities of over 25,000 on ONE DAY!. Over the years Arrow Dynamics went forward and built on what they had done with Express. The multi-looper "triplets" where the end product of "bigger and better" with 7-8 inversions each (Viper at Magic Mountain, Shockwave at Six Flags Great America and Great American Scream Machine at Six Flags Great Adventure). Even with such tough competition, Express held its own, after all it was never designed to be the biggest, but it was designed to be the best, and it was.

Over the years, Hunt Midwest continued to pour Express's returns back into the park, Oceans of Fun debuted in 1982, Fury of the Nile in 1984. By the end of the 1984 season the park had hit its high point, with 1,385,500 guets visiting the park that year.

In 1989, a new animal came to town, Timber Wolf. Orient Express wasn't completley dismissed though as it was celebrating its own birthday of 10 seasons! Like Mamba, many years later, the party came complete with cake, festivities, and even a lovely 80's style balloon cake!

Jan Kiser, ACE president at Orient Express 10th anniversary!

Birthday cake!

More birthday fun, and look it's an Orient costumed ambassador!

Orient Express was still the king of the hill in 1989 however its end came not from Timber Wolf but from a coaster three years later. In 1992 the coaster that would spell the slow end of the great Express opened, its name was Batman at Six Flags Great America. Built by new comers to the coaster design field, Bolliger & Mabillard their designs would revolutionize the world.

Many even today can remember having a love/hate relationship with Express. For all of its great assets, Orient Express also had a turbulent dark side, its rough ride. The modern steel coaster in 1980 was in its infancy, and there was quite a learning curve. Orient Express trains were built with a solid axle. If the track changed direction, the train, with its solid axle, would not so smootly transition into the new direction. It caused headaches, odd head and neck alignments, and was quite truthfully a pain in the neck! Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M) revolutionized the coaster world, there was no longer a solid axle, but a reticulated axle, that could move, and twist smootly with the track. It was actually quite simple, B&M's were smooth, Express was not.

The offending steel axle

Just for the sheer coolness factor the wheel axle.

Not only were B&M's more enjoyable, with less to worry about in terms of comfort, coasters could produce faster speeds and contort more wildly in height and inversions. The writing was on the wall for Express.

For all its troubles though Orient Express had its supporters. It WAS a classic, and it was built to stand the test of time with quite simply a great design for any time. It was that design that was the final nail in the coffin. The stress applied to the track through two decades of two to three multi-ton trains running everyday, day after day eventually caused the steel track to fracture in its most vulnerable area. Right after the train exited the Kamikaze Kurve, on a June night in 1999 the unthinkable happened.

Orient Express derailed. I remember quite vividly hearing the news. There was a sinking feeling, especially considering what state the park was in at the time. We all knew the end had come, but no one mentioned it. The Orient Express was like a friend, or family member and like that personal relationship we denied the end was near. We hoped that somehow Express would come back and things would be good again.

That never happened, as Express limped through three more seasons. It would never be the same again. When the end happened it happened suddenly, with no announcement. Simply just one day there was a post that a piece of track was missing from the break run. Sure enough Express had met its match and would come tumbling down.

Our first sign that the end had finally come.

As a child of the 80's I remember vividly the commercials, and though I only went to the park three times during the decade (don't act so shocked!) I remember so vividly seeing the Express as I came to the park for the first time in 1983 as a child. It scared and awed me all at one time. So the day that I sat in our car, sitting on 43rd street, the weather seemed to match my mood, foggy, cold and miserable. Nothing can etch the memory of watching the approach to the second loop come crashing to the ground. I will never forget it.

No explanation needed.

However like a movie I recently watched I don't want to remember Express like that, and neither does my husband or any of our friends. I want to remember Express the way it was. The great steel terror of Worlds of Fun will always continue to exist as it exists for those that remember it.


Jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blue Fantastico said...

this is a great entry!