One of the early hits of the 2019 season has been Copperhead Strike at Carowinds. Not only is it a great addition to the park from strictly a roller coaster point of view, the theming for the attraction is some of the best you’ll encounter at any regional park in the country. That theming came to Copperhead Strike by way of southern Indiana/Louisville-based design firm Weber Group, Inc. We were able to connect with Adam McIntyre, Creative Director and Partner at Weber Group, to learn a little bit more about the theming that helps give Copperhead Strike its’ “bite!”
Coaster101: How did you get your start at Weber Group?
Adam McIntyre: I started with Weber Group in 1999. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. I’m an architect. This is not really something that a lot of architects find themselves doing. There’s not really a path through architecture to get to do what we do. I was driving back home from Texas and stopped to see my grandmother in Kentucky. I was spending a couple of days here and noticed an ad for the Weber Group. I inquired about it and that’s how I started. My first year, we were working on Six Flags parks. Paramount Parks started to come online at that time, and we started to go around the country redoing and updating amusement parks, and then getting into the water park gig as well. It’s been quite a journey here over the last 20 years.
Coaster101: What are some notable projects you’ve worked on in the past?
McIntyre: One of the first major attractions that we did that had intellectual property [IP] attached to it was the Tomb Raider ride at Kings Island. Right after the Lara Croft series of movies hit, Paramount was interested in putting that IP in a lot of their parks. We did the first one at Kings Island. It was a very successful ride and had a bit of a cult following as well. It had a massive queue with a huge pre-show. It was very intense, like a Disney or Universal would go to, but it was for a regional theme park. That was one of the first projects I did out of the gate, and I thought “what a great career I’ve found. I get to do this the rest of my career.”
Paramount went on a bit of a tear, and then the bottom fell out of that. Then you had a lot of operators who were putting on very light theming on rides when they acquired them. Folks are just now getting back into, especially at regional parks, coming up with IP that is authentic and meaningful in these parks. They’ve found that guests are responding to them in a big way. I think that’s why Copperhead Strike is having some success. It is more intense than the other rides that they have at Carowinds, in a good way that’s not busting the bank with movie-driven IP.
Coaster101: Weber Group is based in Sellersburg, Indiana. How does a Southern Indiana company get involved (and become a major player) in themed attraction design?
McIntyre: People have asked us that. Weber Group has been in business for 35 years. It was actually started by two brothers. Ed Hart purchased Kentucky Kingdom, and befriended one of the brothers who owned the company. That was Donnie Webber. They got to talking. Donnie and Tom were two brothers who had a design and build company. Ed said ‘hey look, Donnie, you really draw amazingly well. How would you like to come be my in-house design and build firm in the park?” Ed took Kentucky Kingdom from a very small, very family oriented local park, and more than doubled the size in just a couple of years. Brought it up to where it was a high performing park. Six Flags went in and bought that park.
That’s when Weber Group spun out, but because Six Flags had seen the successes that Weber Group had done with that small park, they said huh, we have need for you all to do this at all of our other parks. So Weber Group went on about a 5-6 year run of touching every Six Flags park, and that we parlayed into working at every Paramount Park. Weber has been very fortunate to have touched a good number of amusement parks across the country. It all started with Kentucky Kingdom.
Coaster101: Moving onto Copperhead Strike; How much of the theming for Copperhead Strike was done by the Weber Group?
McIntyre: Nearly all of it is ours. The park approached us and said ‘hey, we’re doing a coaster.’ We have this idea that there is a family that has a farm, and instead of making jams and jellies, they were secretly making moonshine. Go.
That was really it. They said ‘as a park, that’s what we thought of, we thought that might resonate with our public, and they asked us if we could take it from there.”
We got really excited and started to work. We decided the narrative needs to start all the way out at the entrance of the ride, all the way out at the main ID sign. All the way through the queue. We stretched that story out as far as we could with the budget we had. We used the props to set up a narrative that we hope pulls its way through the load of the ride, the pause moment in the launch barn, and then the wrap up at the end.
As far as the content goes, we wrote all the backstories, came up with all the characters, came up with interests for the characters, their personas, backstories, and then when it came to the physical manifestation of the characters, which happens in the launch barn video content, we wrote it, produced it, controlled it, produced all the audio, 100% of that was done in house here at Weber Group. We had a lot of fun with that one. It was kind of a rare set up which doesn’t happen a whole lot. One that our whole team put our arms around and said ‘you know what, we haven’t done a coaster in a year.’ We were ready to do another one.
Coaster101: When did Cedar Fair/Carowinds first approach the Weber Group to do work on Copperhead Strike, and once pitched, what was the turn around time for a “General Idea” of what it would look like?
McIntyre: We were first approached in March 2018. We spent probably two months kind of flushing some ideas out. We drew out concept boards of what we thought the guest experience would be, at a high level. We really just storyboarded out the entire experience. We kept it in sketch form. We are a design and build company, we do in house design. As I said, I’m an architect, we have our own engineers, and we do our own fabrication. We try to leave as much value in the build as possible. Because we’re going to be building the vast majority of the pieces and parts ourselves, we tend not to overdraw things.
We have the conversations up front with the clients and parks we work with. We’ll tell them “these design-build relationships are all about trust.” We’ll do some concept sketches, and we’ll do them as tight as we can, and what we build is going to look like the sketches. The parks have to trust us on this. If we all like these sketches, rather than us going through and detailing things out completely in CAD or 3D models, we say “let’s get right into doing some prototyping and samples, and let’s look at some of these things in the real materials, and let’s get into the build.” I would rather not spend too many dollars on paper, I would rather leave the dollars and put into the better theming pieces.
That’s what we did with this project and it’s why I think we have a lot of success. We had a lot of trust from the Cedar Fair folks with our capabilities, and we had a lot of trust in them as a client, because we’ve worked with them a number of times over the last 20 years. They’re a very mature organization. They’ve been through this before. There was a level of understanding and a level of trust. They effectively said “we’re hiring you as professionals. Just do the best job you can with the budgets we’re giving you and show us progress along the way.”
We sent them a lot of photos of things that were coming out of the shop, and they sent along comments as it went. But we didn’t really overdraw things, and it was a wonderful process on both sides. It was very unique. That doesn’t typically happen a lot. Usually a lot of the big players want things drawn out to the “nth” degree, which is a bit of a strain on the fabrication schedules. Because we’re the fabricators as well, we knew we had to get working on this fast because we had a very short project cycle.
Coaster101: How does the project cycle for Copperhead Strike compare to past project cycles?
McIntyre: As one part of that answer, it’s becoming more typical. The other part is that we used to have more time to do projects like this. To put in a big coaster like this, a park knows they’re doing it a couple years out. MACK has to get way out ahead and it takes them that long to make a coaster and engineer it. So they’re about two-and-a-half years out. By the time they get us involved, it’s always too late (laughs). It always is an accelerated schedule by the time Weber Group gets involved. But, because we’ve been doing this a lot of years, we know this is the game.
Coaster101: How and where did you source some of the “pre-existing” props for Copperhead Strike?
McIntyre: We leveraged as many “bought” props as we could. As part of the narrative on this one, it is a working farm, and they were trying to figure out how to make money, the family was. There were a lot of bought props that came together in very interesting configurations. As what would have been a working machine that would have made jam, or pies, and as they made into it, they realized it wasn’t going to be a good money maker, so they started to make ‘shine. So the machinery started turning into things that would help their moonshine operation. Given the nature of this, and given the fact that it’s supposed to be set in the 50’s, early 50’s, there’s a lot of available props available to leverage. We tried to be as authentic as we possibly could with the prop purchases that we made. There’s going to be some that get outside of that 1950’s, but for the vast majority of the props, we tried to stay as true as we could to the decade that were bracketing?
We have some spots around here that we routinely go to. The other nice thing is that we have a little over 100 people now at our company, and a number of our folks come from southern Indiana, and are around some farmland. We leverage some of those folks as well. We’ll put out a notice and say “we are looking for X, and a lot of times, one of our employees will say I know a brother, an uncle, a cousin, who has something like that or something similar. We’ll always try to go there first.
Coaster101: How did the theming for Copperhead Strike evolve over time?
McIntyre: It started with the gem of the idea at Carowinds. We generally like to start off with narrative. We start writing a story. We write out what we think is a likely backstory, we write out what we think a storyboard would be, and then we go into quick sketches towards that. We bounce that around in house. They’re “pizza and beer” sessions, getting folks together and saying “what do you think about this?” What would be a better idea? What would be a better gag? What would be a better scene? Once we get to that comfort level, we’ll ‘daylight’ that to the park, and say hey, here’s where we’re at, what do you think?
With this one, we had a series of conference calls early on to talk that through, and then we did one in-house wrap up. We said, ‘alright, we’re about to start building, here’s where we are with this.’ The park made a few comments and we were off to the races with fabrication.
Here’s the secret sauce though. We have some very talented illustrators and designers here at Weber Group. But the magic about our company is that we have extremely talented artists in our shop in fabricators and carpenters. What I always say is that our projects can be really good on paper, but they become really great when we let the people out in the shop add their touch to it. We always encourage ‘what can you add to this as it moves through the shop?’ If they just built what I draw, or one of our other creatives draw, it will never be as good as if they put their own stuff into it. All those “Easter eggs” that you see throughout the theming on this one, there’s a hundred throughout this, and I probably couldn’t even name them all. Those are all added by our staff. Unsolicited. They get put in there because they care. We’ve empowered them to do those kind of things.
Coaster101: What are some examples of “Easter Eggs” created by your team at Weber Group?
McIntyre: If you approach Granny’s house, which is very noticeable, you’ll see that we’ve made some references to who might be populating the house. It’s Granny’s house, but then there are two chairs out front. One is a very wide, comfortable chair, and the other is a very narrow, tall skinny chair. This plays into the narrative of Granny’s two boys. If you look very closely at the tall skinny chair, there’s a carved snaked on one part of it. It’s an emblem that’s right there.
There’s this copperhead mystique that runs through here too, which is the way that the family has been keeping people off of their farm, so that they don’t discover that there’s moonshine. They started this myth that their farm is overrun by copperheads, so that’s why you start to see all the signage that reads turn away or go back. They bite, their venom will kill you, that kind of stuff. When the artists get into some of the narratives, you start to find those things throughout the work. The snakehead on the chair was pretty prominent, but down lower on the chair, there are some carved other things too. Your readers will find them if they go through the queue line. There’s a lot more detail every time you start to look at things.
Another example is in the launch barn. I know you’re only in there for between 6-10 seconds when the “show” comes on. If you can pause enough to look to the right side, you’ll find that the snake motif appears in a lot of the piping as well. Some of the pipes that lead from the jam machine from the masher to the juicer, will be done as stylized snake heads. It’s a nice little tie-ins.
On the big ID sign, there are probably 20 things that are carved into the backside of that sign that are quite interesting. Buried tools and parts, but it’s the back of a sign. No one ever does that! We had a blast with it. The more fun that we have on these things, I think it translates into a richer experience all-around.
Coaster101: What is your favorite theming element on Copperhead Strike?
McIntyre: Carowinds’ VP/GM Pat Jones asked me this during media day. I think the kid in me has to appreciate the outhouses in the queue, which I wish were real. I think we had some very clever gags on the backside of those. They looked like themed outhouses on the front, but they kind of have a little 13-year old humor on the backside. They’re funny little gags. I’ll leave it at that.
Coaster101: What’s your favorite roller coaster, anywhere?
McIntyre: We’re fortunate that we get to ride so many rides. My favorite is a nostalgic answer from the park I grew up near, the Beast at Kings Island. It’s one of those rides that just has a thrill moment to it, with the tunnels, that you don’t find very often elsewhere.
Coaster101: Was there anything that the Weber Group designed that didn’t make the “final product” for whatever reason?
McIntyre: Ironically, with Copperhead Strike, we had a moment like the Beast’s tunnels, but it got “VE’d” out. [Author’s Note: VE’d = Value Engineering, a nice way to say “cut from the budget.”] There was going to be another blown out barn where you kind of had that “dip into it” moment where if you had your arms up, you’d pull them in a little bit, but it didn’t make it into the final cut.
The second one was there was going to be a light lock corn crib, the lite lock. With the JoJo roll, as you come out of the station, there was supposed to be this themed corn crib that would have wrapped around that whole curve. You would have entered into this curved corn crib that would have had all these slats with all this corn in it, and bottles of whiskey hidden in the corn. That’s where they would hide the whiskey stash from the law, and you’d have gone right past it when going into the barn. It was a good-looking element in concept. When the budgets got put together, it was one of the things that had to drop off.
Coaster101: Anything else you want our readers to know?
McIntyre: Roller coasters are fun to work on. We get to work all over the country in different parks, and sometimes its just a food building here and there, and sometimes its coasters, and that’s the crème de la crème of the amusement parks. It was a great project.
Thank you very much to Adam for his time! For more information, be sure to visit the Weber Group’s website!