Coasters-101: Why are roller coasters removed?
Roller coasters are multi-million dollar investments that amusement parks spend countless dollars and time in designing, building, and maintaining. But lately it seems like we’ve seen more roller coasters and classic thrill rides closed and dismantled than ever before. Why are roller coasters torn down? What goes into a decision to remove a multi-million dollar investment, especially if it is a fan favorite?
Thousands of hours go into planning, designing and engineering the perfect coaster, but it doesn’t always go as planned or turn out as expected. This is especially true for coasters constructed in the days prior to advanced computer aided design. Design tolerances, the permissible limits in variation of dimensions and physical properties of manufactured parts, were larger than the tight engineering tolerances we can hold today. But try as they might, the engineers cannot account for every single variable. Sometimes there are freak accidents, scenarios no one ever thought of. Or sometimes a ride is just plain boring and doesn’t strike a chord with the general public. Other times mother nature intervenes and usually not in a good way.
Regardless of the reason why, an amusement park ride may be closed but not dismantled right away. This status is called SBNO – Standing But Not Operating. Once a roller coaster is torn down, it is referred to as “defunct” meaning no longer existing. Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons why an amusement park might make the difficult decision to change the status of your favorite thrill ride from “operating” to “defunct.”
Maintenance/End of Life Cycle
Just like any other material product, roller coasters have a shelf-life. Even if a ride is well-designed and well liked, sometimes the material just reaches the end of its endurance limits. When this happens, the track or components either have to be scrapped or replaced entirely.If almost every component needs to be replaced, the park may make the decision to demolish the existing ride, sell the material for scrap, and then build a brand new coaster in its place. In Universal Orlando’s case, this is what they’re doing except the brand new coaster has the exact same layout as the one that was scrapped. The Incredible Hulk at Island of Adventure is undergoing a complete replacement of all the steel including the track and support columns making it essentially a brand new ride. Enthusiasts are already arguing over whether it should count as a new coaster credit or not.
Replacing a steel coaster structure is much more evident than a wood coaster. There’s a saying in the industry: “you never stop building a wood coaster.” Even though a classic wood coaster may have opened in 1950, how much of the structure is actually original? Sections of the ride may be replaced over time without you ever actually noticing it.
Total Park Operating Cost/Budget
Contrary to what some amusement park goers think, theme parks cannot keep adding and adding roller coasters until they have fifty of them in the park – at least not without also increasing the attendance year after year, no easy feat. Only so many coasters can operate at once without dramatically increasing ticket prices to offset the increased operational costs. A theme park can only have as many coasters as the operational budget allows. As Dick Kinzel states in his autobiography, amusement parks “break everything out by cost per rider.” Rides with the highest cost per rider operating cost may be first on the chopping block.
Accidents often lead to ride closures because either A.) the coaster is not safe enough to operate and should be fixed or removed. Or B.) maybe it was a freak accident and the ride is safe but the damage has been done: the ride and the operator’s reputation has been hurt, maybe to the point where the public feels like the ride or even the entire theme park is unsafe and will no longer visit. It will be interesting to see if The Smiler at Alton Towers reopens this summer after being SBNO since early last year as a result of the horrific vehicle collision.
Real Estate/In the way of progress
“They don’t have enough room to expand! How can they build another coaster? They’re running out of space!” are cries often read on theme park forums about a number of parks. Usually, this complaint is baseless. Occasionally, though it is a legit problem. What’s the easiest way to free up a lot of space in a theme park? Demolish an aging roller coaster. The land that the old coaster is sitting on becomes too valuable as a growing park runs out of room to expand. Gotta make room for progress. This past year, Carowinds removed Thunder Road so as not to impede on their water park expansion for 2016.
Low or Declining Ridership/Unpopular
Another argument towards keeping or removing a roller coaster besides if it is adding/subtracting to the bottom line is how is it affecting the guest experience? Are guests coming to the park to specifically ride that ride? How disappointed will they be if they find out the coaster is broke down and closed for the day? Is the ride talked about in a positive or negative way? Is it hurting or enhancing the park’s overall reputation?
One way amusement parks will try to combat declining ridership is by modifying or adding to the attraction such as new theming or new train design. Another method of improving an unpopular ride is about to explode this year: virtual reality headsets. A few Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks will probably be testing it this summer before rolling it out to the entire chain.
Occasionally, the decision to destroy a roller coaster may be taken completely out of the owner’s hands, as in the case with natural disasters like fire, floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina resulted in the entire Six Flags New Orleans amusement park being permanently closed in August of 2005 (though it is being used to make movies, like Jurassic World).
Of course, the reason to remove a major coaster does not have to be mutually exclusive to a single one of the reasons but is more likely to be some combination of the above that all contribute to the owner pulling the plug. Or there could be another reason entirely. For example, the famous Cyclone Racer at the Pike in Long Beach, California was destroyed in 1968 because the City of Long Beach was attempting to improve its image and the coaster did not fit this new agenda. Regardless of the reason, us enthusiasts can only hope that the driving reason to remove a roller coaster is to build an even better one in its place.
What ride removal shocked or surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments below.