A Tale of Two Coasters:

The Decline of Cedar Point’s Disaster Transport, the Rise of Busch Gardens’ Verbolten, and the significance of theming in Regional Parks

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” – Steve Jobs

When the longtime CEO of Cedar Fair, Dick Kinzel stepped down after 39 years of service, he took a moment to reflect on his personal triumphs as well as some strategic missteps. Living in Sandusky, Ohio with accessible sightlines to the shores and structures of the company’s flagship park, Cedar Point, Kinzel had always invested most in his own backyard. Being the first park to feature 200, 300, and 400-foot coasters creates an formidable industry reputation that Kinzel still relishes. Kinzel will claim that the hometown proliferation of coasters was not to create a “rollercoaster capital of the world,” but to simply raise park attendance. Suggestio falsi aside, Cedar Point should be the innovator and flag bearer for the organization, despite being a seasonal park in Northern Ohio.

In his tenure Kinzel made bold decisions; most notably the acquisition of Paramount Parks, which expanded the fleet of Cedar Fair properties to twelve. But there were bad times as well. A long-winded public quarrel with the company’s largest shareholder , Q Investments, stripped Kinzel of the title of company chairman for his final year with the company. Cedar Fair also had to traipse through high debts in the wake of the Paramount acquisition, nearly forcing their hand to being acquired by a third party. But in reflection, when asked of his career’s most prevalent lapse, Dick Kinzel alluded to a single coaster: Cedar Point’s Disaster Transport.

In 2009, Busch Gardens Williamsburg sparked the interest of roller coaster enthusiasts by announcing the closure of the historic Big Bad Wolf. The suspended trip through a Bavarian village had reached the end of its serviceable life. Although it had showed its age in its later years, park guests and BGW regulars still enjoyed “traveling at the speed of fright.” Debate immediately initiated on its replacement and many wondered what the park had in mind for expansion, and if it could fill the shoes set by the Wolf.

Fans of the park would get their answer in the September of the next year when the plans for “Verbolten” were officially announced.  Inviting guests to “Challenge the Black Forest,” Busch Gardens revealed the coaster would feature many “firsts.” With so much speculation about the overall specs of the coaster, park fans overlooked the potential for great theming. Opening in time for the 2012 season, the experience is a genuine treat.

As much as Verbolten is driven by the technological features exhibited in a family coaster, the attraction is carried by its story. As park guests approach the attraction’s first queue building they encounter the attraction’s initial facade: an offbeat and  idiosyncratic travel company named “Gerta and Gunter’s Tour and Rentals.” The melange of festive and colorful automotive appurtenances complect with the park’s two-year renovation of the Oktoberfest area. But, of course, in true theme park fashion there is a cimmerian interruption to our proposed tour through Germany’s pastoral countryside. The accentuating prop is placed at the entrance to the queue: an overtly ominous bright red car that has clearly been punctured by the vines of the fabled black forest, its interior overgrown with mold. Smoke billowing from the car’s hood coupled with the occasional unsuccessful engine turnover creates a convincing and foreboding effect.

Disaster Transport began its life as an outdoor bobsled attraction named Avalanche Run, which ran parallel to the shores of Lake Erie. Built in 1985 to diversify the park’s offerings, the coaster proved to be a popular draw in its nascent years. A print advertisement boasted the following:

“Now you can find the best free-wheelin’ feeling anywhere on Cedar Point’s new Avalanche Run, the only ride in Mid-America to simulate a real bobsled run. It’s a whole new sensation as your sled shoots through a quarter-mile of winding steel chute. You’ll climb a banked curve and zip through the straightaway with more curves just ahead. It’s a thrill you won’t find at Disneyland or Disney World. It’s at Cedar Point!”

I will excuse the slight prevarication of comparison in light of its somewhat substantial irony (which I will shortly explain). Avalanche Run’s outdoor setting and proximity to Cedar Point beach produced an unwanted intrusion: sand into the ride’s troughs undermined the ride experience. The decision was made shortly thereafter to enclose the ride, abandoning the abrupt juxtaposition of the Lake Erie shoreline with a swiss chalet.

Inspired by a then recent trip to Walt Disney World, Dick Kinzel (reportedly) wanted his own Space Mountain (despite Marketing’s claim that Avalanche Run was an exclusive experience). A theming company, ITEC Productions, was brought aboard and was given a substantial amount of financial leeway for a special effects package. Meanwhile, guests were prepped for “a SCREAM in Space.”

In a recent interview near the opening of Verbolten, Creative Director Brian Morrow  expounded on the attraction’s backstory and the processes behind thematic decisions. Morrow notes that the attraction’s theme was carefully constructed as the centerpiece of the  two-year renovation of the Oktoberfest area. Thought was clearly given in regards to the coaster’s primary audience. Verbolten follows in the convention set by the Big Bad Wolf as an initial stepping stone for younger audiences before tackling larger coasters and thrills. Yet, the designers of Verbolten had to appeal to the all-important young adult market segment. Even though the coaster wouldn’t be challenging height and speed records, it still had to pack a punch.

Morrow explicates that there was never really any doubt that the attraction would center around the myths of the Black Forest. A car motif was another obvious choice. Reflecting the Autobahn-driven culture of Germany and filling a park void created when the “LeMans Raceway” was dilapidated in favor of the popular dive coaster Griffon; Verbolten fits a need.

After the park visitor enters the queue and passes the foreboding visage of the damaged tour vehicle, the guest enters the quaint visitor’s center where they are greeted by vintage travel posters and are  introduced to two characters that drive the backstory: Gerta and Gunter Schwartzwald. Gerta is the public figurehead of the company, operating the visitor center and overseeing the renting of cars. Morrow describes her as so: “(Gerta) loves the people, loves the village, but she is very afraid of the Black Forest, and gives us lots of warnings to stay out of it.”

The story becomes richer as the guest progresses through the queue. After switchbacking outside to allow guests to catch a glimpse of the ride to come, park visitors enter Gunter’s workshop. The setting conveys a different, darker tone. It is clear that Gunter is deeply invested into discovering exactly what is compromising their business. Morrow explains: “Gunter on the other hand, is obsessed with the Black Forest and he wants to protect it from people who think it’s evil and bad. He does a lot of work for the forest like pulling the personal belongings out of the cars reclaimed by the forest.” Closed-circuit television monitors display wiretapped images from the black forest while the office is adorned by ostensibly missing luggage. Shades of Animal Kingdom’s Expedition Everest’s queue are reflected when we see the documentation of Gunter’s determination: maps, newspaper clippings, samples from the forest, and books dishevel the quaint office.

The loading station itself reflects the transportation  motif of the Autobahn. Busch Gardens designed this area well when prepping for high capacity crowds. The dual loading zero-entry platform does wonders for the attraction’s capacity. The attraction’s five trains, each carrying sixteen riders, and its distinct loading constituent (which makes boarding for quests with disabilities much easier) expedite the boarding process. Finally, the trains themselves carry a unique and rather pleasing aesthetic. Headlights, rear-view mirrors and cleverly titled license plates sell the illusion of  validity. Styled after classic German roadsters, the contours of the cars mesh well with the curves of the track.

Armed with four million dollars, ITEC Productions did look to  equip Avalanche Run with the effects necessary for it to be a believable experience. Initially, a story structure existed.Upon entering the queue park guests found themselves in a fictional space airline setting. The company “Dispatch Master Transport” offered the following promise: “if we don’t get you there in five minutes, we don’t get you there at all.”

Once upon a time, guests entered a queue adorned with television screens and travel posters. The posters of the passenger terminal were futuristic in design, but sardonically discouraged visitors from actually taking a trip there. For example, the poster for Baden Baden had “No, No” inscribed on it. Another poster featured Walt Disney World and accentuated a harsher message: “the magic is gone.” Aside from other various destinations served by Dispatch Master Transport, television screens broadcasted potential destinations as well as safety measures and warnings about potential dangers like asteroids and space pirates. Two simple audio-animatronic robots watched over the “Repair Bay,” an area guests were re-routed to due to “maintenance in the normal terminal.” Overhead baskets set on a fixed conveyer path carried spare parts overhead, akin to Disney-MGM Studios’ Star Tours.

Also, Ride Operators, (who at the time wore bright  fluorescent orange jumpsuits, accented by the blacklights in the queue) gave a spiel at a podium in one of the holding rooms. Guests were told that  they were to be the first human cargo ever attempted by Dispatch Master Transport. The destination of said journey proved to be a staple of roller coaster folklore for years to come: a research outpost facility in Alaska.

Upon clearing the “Repair Bay,” (the final queue room) the park guests turn a corner where the true meaning of the attraction’s namesake is revealed. A sign )which shows the “Dis” from “Dispatch” crashing down over the first consonant in “Master” ) hangs above a strange, ugly, and tacky altar-like structure covered in luminous blacklight paint. A short ascension up a flight of stairs leads quests directly to the boarding area.

Initially, a strobe light flashed at the top of the lift hill while “Dave,” the voice of the in-flight computer prepared the riders for launch. Of course, the pilot “loses control” and riders are sent through the same contours of Avalanche Run. There were the occasional special effects. Notably, a large satellite was illuminated as riders rounded a helix and for a time featured an effect that shot laser beams. The remainder of the attraction sent guests around asteroids and planets before “regaining control” and returns to the station, ahem, Alaska. A mural of a snowy research base was seen by riders as they departed.

Once aboard Verbolten, the riders are granted little time before being thrust into the action. After a downhill “S curve” guests are propelled into the attractions show building. Dubbed “the event building” by  its designers, it is the primary storytelling vessel. Large painted sets then engulf the visitor’s peripheral vision. Creative Director Brian Morrow explains: “We are the first people to use the new ultraviolet strobe lights. They are LED black lights and these are directional and focusable, so we can control exactly what we want you to see. We can dim them and strobe them, and while there are other types of lights in there too these are the majority of them.”

The large sets and considerable thrill inside the event building (seen above) only amplifies the gravitas of the story elements. Inside, the prognostication becomes reality. In alignment with the modern trend of random ride experiences, Verbolten offers three contingencies. The Spirit of the Forest features a muliebrous voice that informs riders of their trespass. Another simulates an intense lightning storm, while the third plays homage to the coaster’s predecessor, glowing eyes and binaural audio simulate a wolf encounter.

The three show elements share the same acme. Engulfed in darkness, the coaster (and track)  engage in a free-fall of eighteen feet. The surprising effect is second in the world (to Alton Towers’ Th13teen) and provides considerable thrill to unassuming riders. While the  drop surmounts the show building experience, Verbolten still offers thrill. Riders are then launched for a second time, exiting the show building. After traversing through some curves,  the coaster trains reach a familiar site. A decaying wooden covered bridge serves as a brake stop before the coaster’s track emulates the famous final drop of the Big Bad Wolf. Verbolten even recycles the concrete footers of the wolf, pleasing riders still wearing the lens of nostalgia.

Overall, Verbolten excels as a themed attraction. Once learning of its multiple show experiences, even the average park guest will have a propensity to return. Even though it is nowhere near the level of thematic execution set Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey or Expedition Everest,  it is a fait accompli for theming in a regional park. Creative Director Brian Morrow relishes the coaster as  “a powerful imagination based attraction that turned out as thrilling as we hoped it would be.” By immersing the rider in theme and story Verbolten requires the rider to have an overall higher consciousness. The increased brain activity helps the coaster stand out from the park’s other offerings. I hope in time further improvements and adjustments can be made to Verbolten inside and outside of the event building, new show scenes can be added or replaced and trees can be planted outside to simulate entering the forest.

Not much time passed before Disaster Transport to fall into a state of disrepair.  Cedar Fair learned the hard way that the initial cost of installing special effects does not guarantee their longevity, as well as the costs associated with repair. Halfway through the 1990’s some effects were permanently abandoned; by 1998 half of the queue was converted into storage space of venues for the park’s popular HalloWeekends.  With the closures came a disintegration in story. Guests were no longer prepped for their “blast-off into the future with an exciting voyage into the unknown” but were left with the promised “darkness of space.”

The show building had its problems too. A leaky roof coupled with a trough-like track spurred many problems. At times Disaster Transport could have been considered Ohio’s most expensive gutter. Even the air-conditioning, which functioned as a safe haven for park guests on hot Sandusky summer days, began to fail as the ride reached its last legs. On official park publications the ride was re-themed from “space journey” to “roller coaster in the dark.” Even the infamous Alaskan outpost mural had been painted over.

Through the 2000’s Disaster Transport’s queue had little to offer to the ride experience. Garish and outright tasteless blacklight paint marred of interior of the “Repair Bay.” Worse, florescent  “Day-Glo” handprints along the walls vitiated any sense of unity or theme. A queue that once functioned like a dark ride, albeit second rate, had stooped to the thematic level of a local laser tag. Dick Kinzel’s “dog of a ride” was now an excellent opportunity to sell glow-sticks and cut-rate polarized glasses (which offered very little to the attraction experience) in the queue. In 2012, Cedar Point announced the attraction’s overdue closure. A charity event was held to raise money for children with life threatening illnesses as Disaster Transport sent its last launch on July 29th. Disaster Transport had ran its course with disappointing fashion. Even its greatest mystery, the mysterious meaning behind the “12E” that graced the attraction’s exterior, was anticlimactically revealed as the 12th attraction design by an ITEC Productions employee named Eric.

Aside from a historical compilation, this article exists as a discussion on quality. Ultimately, Disaster Transport will forever be infamously  immortalized in discussions regarding theming in regional parks. Though a victim of budget complications, structural inefficiencies, and poor execution, Disaster Transport’s death notice stemmed from poor maintenance. Coasters propagated with dormant effects and bad aesthetics are never effective, and often build  a reputation out of notoriety.

Verbolten, on the other hand, excels in story premise and show execution. It’s affinity for re-rideability will serve the attraction well for many years. Guest inquisitiveness grows through each queue scene and its thrills justify the time invested. Lastly, the ride reflects the theming of its surrounding area as well as the aesthetic of the park.

While Cedar Point is not classified as a “theme park,” the park does contain areas of theme. The strongest of these themes, the Old West, was strengthened by the addition of Maverick in 2007. Maverick exists without a story, but does manifest a Frontier ambiance through its queue and ride features (specifically water effects that emulate the firing of bullets). A child’s area with the Peanuts branding, Planet Snoopy, was installed in 2008 and features thematic unity. Typical scaled down versions of rides for adults exist with matching color schemes and branding. But Cedar Point’s aesthetic is most famous for its idealized midways, embellished with games of skill and carnival lights, the park capitalizes on the “endless summer” mindset of visitors to the Lake Erie Peninsula.

Now, in 2012, Disaster Transport and the Space Spiral (a observation tower with a rotating cabin) will soon be a vestige of the park’s ill-executed space area. Its probably safe to say that the park will not return to a spaced-themed area for quite some time. Is there room for themed entertainment like Verbolten at Cedar Point? Certainly, but improbably. Even though the two parks share very similar attendance figures for seasonal, regional parks (2,744,000 for Busch Gardens vs. 3,143,000 for Cedar Point in 2011) it is a matter of company mastheads.

Cedar Point works hard to retain its perception as a roller coaster mecca, its theme being a profusion of the world’s best. Busch Gardens Williamsburg also has a reputation to uphold. “The World’s Most Beautiful Theme Park”  must deliver on its promise and uphold its theming. Verbolten strengthens the Oktoberfest theme and offers a quality experience. Two different ideologies reflect two very different parks. I am not trying to say that Cedar Point’s approach is wrong, it isn’t. Millions make the trip to Sandusky every season to brave the park’s tallest and fastest. Its reputation proceeds them, coupled with its beachside and timeless midway motif, the park creates memories and is certainly enjoyable. The rides themselves just happen to be devoid of theming.

It is a real shame that the legacy of Disaster Transport has almost completely dissuaded Cedar Fair from investing in themed attractions with complete storylines. Perhaps new CEO Matt Ouimet, who spent many years in themed entertainment as President of the Disneyland Resort, will be more apt to look into new possibilities. Conceivably, something of a lesser scale like a dark ride for Planet Snoopy would fill a void in Cedar Point’s attraction base. Whatever lies in Cedar Point’s future, the recipe for success have been proven to lie in the demonstration of quality.