Tuesday, April 1, 2014

25 Years of Running Wild with Timber Wolf

April 1, 2014: Twenty five years ago today, a Worlds of Fun landmark opened for the first time to the public, Timber Wolf.  Today, the name Timber Wolf and the ride experience itself inspire a multitude of different emotions and opinions.  There are those who complain about how rough the ride is, who scream “give me a Tylenol!” or “never again!” after stepping off a ride There are even those that feel that the only good thing to do to Timber Wolf would be to tear the thing down; turn it into a nice scrap heap. 

However, this writer, and many others who feel very differently about Timber Wolf.  Timber Wolf is more than the sum of its parts or its numbers but lets stop and look at those for a minute. Today Timber Wolf is twenty-five years old, a first for ANY Worlds of Fun coaster past or present. Today it becomes Worlds of Fun’s longest operating coaster, a feat that could not be achieved by either of the other two of the Hunt Midwest Triplets (Zinger, Express, Wolf).  When it opened it also wasn’t the park’s fastest or tallest coaster either, at 100 feet tall, with a maximum speed of 53 MPH.  Orient Express, built roughly 10 years earlier was 117 feet tall with a maximum speed of 50-65 MPH (depending on the source).  It was however, the park's longest coaster to date at 4,230 feet long.

Timber Wolf was different though, unlike Orient Express and Zambezi Zinger it was made of wood.  Unlike almost every park I can think of, Worlds of Fun operated for an unimaginably long time without a wooden coaster in its line up. (17 years).  In 1989, there were only 88 wooden coasters operating in the country.  Today that number has almost doubled, and for good reason.  For those who remember about a decade ago in the era of CCI (Custom Coasters Intl.) and GCI (Great Coasters Intl), you needed more than one hand to count the number of wooden coasters being built in one season.  In comparison, In 1989 there were only two wooden coasters that premiered, Timber Wolf and Hercules, at Dorney Park in Allentown PA., and both were the creation of Dinn and Summers.

Dinn and Summers, who were they?   In a nut shell, Curtis Summers was an engineer and did the design work and Charles (Charlie) Dinn was responsible for the construction, as a whole they built many world class coasters.  Their story together begins at Kings Island, near Cincinnati Ohio, where both were directly involved in the building of what is still considered by many one of the greatest wooden coasters ever built, The Beast.  As a partnership Curtis D Summers and Charles Dinn built several of the great coasters of the late 80's and early 90's,  Timber Wolf in 1989, and the popular Georgia Cyclone and world famous Texas Giant the following year in 1990. 

Timber Wolf Promotional Video featuring a real timber wolf, also notice how quickly the coaster moves through the course!

Unfortunately, with all their success the Summers and Dinn legacy has not be remembered entirely fondly by coaster enthusiasts in general.  And that's putting it nicely.   In a not so flattering ode to Dinn, the “side to side shuffle” found on many of his coasters has been nick named the “Dinn Shuffle”.    It’s also a sad truth that Timber Wolf’s brother in 1989, Hercules, also designed and built by Summers/Dinn (and was located at Dorney Park in Allentown PA) was not only torn down due to its rough ride (2003), but given the unkind moniker of “Jerkules” in its last few years.

General Manager John Hudacek at Timber Wolf opening in 1989

When Timber Wolf opened in 1989 it made an impact on almost everyone immediately, especially those of us who have been Worlds of Fun fans for years.  I distinctly remember the media blitz surrounding Timber Wolf, its commercials with a real timber wolf running through the snowy woods, the red glowing eyes, and that lonely wolf howl are permanently implanted in my brain.  It was probably with that one commercial that I started taking a more sincere interest in what was happening at 4545 Worlds of Fun Avenue.  Of course as some know, I would not ride a roller coaster until almost two decades later.  So instead of my own lack of first hand experience I will hand that job off to a friend of mine, Randal Strong-Wallace…

I first saw Timber Wolf on the day that they test ran the train for the first time.  I had come up for the weekend to Kansas City and stopped by the park to check out the coaster.

It went around the track the first time only loaded with sand bags and my jaw dropped at how fast it was for a first run.  I could hardly believe what my eyes had just witnessed.  On the second run as the train entered the 180 degree point at the cross over of the upward helix, we all gasped as we saw what appeared to be the track being chewed to bits!  We then realized it was a sand bag that had ripped open!  

I soon enough got my first ride on the first night of the ACE Spring Conference.  It was late in the evening around 9:30 p.m. and the que line was full, but the line moved and it took us only about 25 minutes to get to the boarding platform.  To this day, no other roller coaster has blown me away after riding it for the first time like the Timber Wolf did.  I was riding with my best friend who had never ridden on a wooden coaster before.  She had however rode the  EXT (sit down version), Orient Express and the Zambezi Zinger multiple times with me like a pro.

On that first ride, we came off the lift hill and flew around the pre-drop turn, then plunging down that first drop at breakneck speed.  The ride hadn't been tamed yet with the first drop trim brake.  We were out of our seats the entire way down the drop.  And it never let up, it was so, so fast, and only slightly slowed down at the top of the helix.  Every hill was filled with ejector or floater (but mostly ejector) air time and the forces on the last 3 turns had lot's of lateral G's due to the tracks minimal banking.

My poor friend spent the entire ride wedged between the seat and the lap bar and to this day I have never heard a more terrified high pitched scream.

It was my instant favorite roller coaster, upsetting the Orient Express, which I didn't ever think could happen.  I still ride it almost every time I go to the park, and still enjoy it, but it doesn't even compare to the original way it rode.  For those who didn't get to ride Timber Wolf when it was newer, imagine riding the Prowler today, how crazy it is.  Then go ride the Timber Wolf.  Prowler is the superior ride today obviously.  Well friends, imagine how Prowler is today, and then imagine it crazier and longer, that is the way Timber Wolf was when it was young, Prowler couldn’t even hope to keep up.  That’s what it was like.

Some of us forget… MANY of us (including myself) have never even experienced Timber Wolf quite that way.  A few remember and try to keep their voices heard. Timber Wolf was and I firmly believe still IS a great, world-class coaster.  Of course the words of two, allegedly Worlds of Fun fanatics isn’t going to stir anyone’s concrete beliefs.  So let me let the rest of the world speak about Timber Wolf. 

Bill Gaspard wrote for the Kansas City Star in 1989 shortly before the ride would first open to the public… “The ride is a touch schizoid...  The first half of Timber Wolf has been built in the spirit of Harry Traver, a legendary designer who constructed coasters in their most fearsome form – a wide mix of startling hills, steep fan turns and unexpected spiral dips”

Not long after Timber Wolf opened, people were coming from all over the country to ride this colossal terror. Fans called from as far away as London and Europe, to make sure the ride would be open when they flew 12+ hours just to ride it.  

The "monument" at Parvin Road and Worlds of Fun Avenue stood for several years.

As if that wasn’t enough, the great tour de force for Timber Wolf was not just one person’s seal of approval, but hundreds. For in 1989 and 1990 Timber Wolf was ranked #2 coaster in the world by readers of “Insider Track” (a fan magazine at the time). Not to be outdone in 1991, Timber Wolf launched up one very important step to become the #1 coaster in the world.  Not #1 WOODEN coaster, but #1 coaster PERIOD.  Designer Curtis Summers, Mark Wyatt (editor of Inside Track), and Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver were on hand to unveil the “monument” that stood on Parvin Road and Worlds of Fun Avenue for several years. By the way, if you are interested the #2 coaster that year was Magnum XL-200, followed by Texas Giant, and The Beast. Not exactly bottom of the rung coasters by any stretch of the word. 

So the big question is how did we get from THERE to HERE?  You have to wonder how the idea of someone yelling “tear it down!” back in 1991 would have been viewed… probably like they were completely out of their mind.  Yet it’s the SAME coaster!  So Why? 

Well as Paul Harvey would say… now its time for the REST of the story (for you younger people Google it).   In the summer of 1994 Timber Wolf was temporarily closed due to some minor wear and tear to the track, John Hudacek, General Manager of Worlds of Fun at the time was quoted saying “There was more uplift and side to side motion to a couple of areas”.  This probably figured in heavily to the decision to re-track and partially re-profile the entire ride during the 1994-1995 off season. In 1995, Timber Wolf ran like it never had run before, smooth as silk, faster then a bullet, and incredibly insane. 

Then the rest of 1995 happened.  In June the park was sold to Cedar Fair, in July the girl got thrown from the ride, and not long after trim brakes got thrown onto the first drop.  It slowed the ride down.  As many riders from that time period can attest it did slow the ride down, but not to a point that it was unenjoyable it was still the best experience on Timber Wolf other then the first few months of 1995, when Timber Wolf flew like it never had before.

Then the worst thing that can happen to a wooden coaster happened, and that was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.  Sure, Maintenance walked the track every day for safety, sure anything that was considered unsafe was punctually replaced and repaired. Maintenance of a wooden coaster though is not only about safety, its also about maintaining the enjoyable ride experience. The concept of maintaining an enjoyable ride, along with seemingly Timber Wolf itself, seemed to have been forgotten about for many years. Nothing happened, and for this reason, Timber Wolf languished. 

But my goal in this is not to dwell on the problems with Timber Wolf, though they are many, its to reflect and celebrate a truly great coaster.  Timber Wolf IS a truly great coaster.  I am hoping with what I have written more will come to appreciate Timber Wolf not for what she is today, but for what she has been, and what she could be again.  A World Class coaster.

  Happy Birthday Timber Wolf from your fans, and here to twenty five more!


1989 Timber Wolf Commercial : http://youtu.be/MP68T-4cRJ0?t=1s

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