Zippin Pippin: Then and Now
My first ride on the Zippin Pippin was a blur. Only five years old, I was unknowingly coaxed onto the old wooden roller coaster at Libertyland in Memphis, Tennessee.
I remember seeing the backs of the riders in front of me. I remember the butterflies in my stomach as the train plummeted down the 70-foot drop.
I loved it. I was hooked. Little did I know I would become a lifelong roller coaster enthusiast.
But I also remember the day that Libertyland closed for good in late 2005. I remember visiting the park four years later and seeing the depressing state of the park’s rides and infrastructure.
And I also remember standing in front of the rubble and remnants as construction crews “gently” tore the ride to giant wooden scraps and splinters.
Zippin Pippin’s history in Memphis is unclear. Some reports claim that the wooden coaster originally opened in 1912 at East End Park and later moved to its Libertyland location. Other dates of the Zippin Pippin’s opening include 1915, 1917, and 1923.
We do know that the coaster was a product of John A. Miller that included a 70-foot lift hill, a top speed of 40 mph and a total length of 2,865 feet.
It was music legend Elvis Presley’s favorite ride — an honor often touted that earned the unassuming wooden coaster global recognition.
But that honor couldn’t save it from closing, along with Libertyland, in late 2005.
The coaster stood silent for many years before crews began “dismantling” it in 2010. It was headed for “storage.”
But then along came the mayor of Green Bay, Jim Schmitt and other city leaders. They were interested in purchasing the coaster. Or at least the rights to its design and any salvageable parts. They wanted to rebuild the ride at Green Bay’s Bay Beach Amusement Park.
Fast forward to 2014. I’m standing at the entrance of the “new” Zippin Pippin, which has been open for more than three years.
You can say it’s been a success for the homegrown Wisconsin amusement park. In fact, in June of 2013, Bay Beach recognized the 1,000,000th rider on the new Zippin Pippin.
I traveled to the park earlier this summer. Riding the new Zippin Pippin was near the top of my bucket list, and even though none of the Green Bay Pippin was built with original Memphis materials, I was still excited to ride the replica.
While none of the original Zippin Pippin was used in this replica, there are a few artifacts in front of the coaster such as this sign describing the history of the coaster.
The new coaster, not hidden by warehouses and mature trees like the original, is much more visible to park guests.
In regards to queue and station infrastructure, the Bay Beach coaster couldn’t be more different from the original. Riders enter the queue and board the coaster from the opposite side as the original. But luckily, those changes didn’t affect the ride experience in the slightest.
The trains are different. They’re one car longer, increasing the train capacity from 24 to 30 riders.
The classic, old-school feel of the Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters (PTC) trains with the single-position lap bar has been replaced by updated trains from the same company.
And ironically, the trains and much of the coaster’s machinery were transplanted from the former Thunder Eagle roller coaster at Race World in Pigeon Forge…Tennessee. That counts for something, I guess.
As I sat down in the front row, I was a bit worried. Would I even recognize this modern replica of what was then the nation’s second-oldest wooden roller coaster? Would it bring back the memories of defeating my childhood fear of coasters?
The train departed the station, and instantly, I was transported back in time. I was on the Zippin Pippin — the Zippin Pippin that I knew. Had I closed my eyes, I would have sworn that I was back in Tennessee.
But my eyes were wide open. Of course, the coaster’s surroundings are different. Rather than a view of the paved paradise of the Mid-South Fairgrounds, I got a beautiful view of Green Bay.
And as the train crested the 70-foot lift hill and turned towards the first drop, I knew that this was going to be a great ride.
Sitting in the front row, the first drop was mild, but of course we picked up speed at the bottom of the hill.
The first turnaround gave me a chance to admire the surroundings for a few more seconds, but the second drop plunged again with slightly more force.
The coaster is 2,865 feet long, and little of the out-and-back layout is wasted. If the train isn’t making a 180-degree turn, it’s probably maneuvering an airtime-filled hill.
The Memphis Zippin Pippin was notorious for its rough (I prefer “authentic”) ride. I was surprised that this 2011 replica of the ride maintained some of that roughness. It wasn’t uncomfortable. It felt like a classic wooden coaster should feel.
The only noticeable change in the layout came towards the end of the course. The second-to-last camel back hill provides an intense pop of airtime that I do not recall from the Memphis version. It’s jarring, especially if you’re seated towards the front of the train. You can see a bit of that hill in the above video.
This new version of the Pippin is better paced. The Gravity Group’s work on the coaster, along with the modern construction, produces a slightly different ride experience. And that’s okay.
What matters is that the legacy and history of one of the nation’s oldest wooden roller coasters continues to live on. Even if it’s hundreds of miles away in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
It’s not the same coaster. But it’s the closest thing we Memphians have to reliving the historic splendor of the original Zippin Pippin.
Long live the Pippin.
Take a ride on the original Zippin Pippin below:
And compare that to this video of the Green Bay coaster:
Have you ridden both the “new” and “old” Zippin Pippin coasters? Share your ride experience in the comments section below. And read Libertyland (Images of America) by John Stevenson.