Beyond the Track: Dueling Dragons In-Depth Analysis

There is more beyond the surface of a roller coaster than just hills and drops. Every functional coaster on earth has scrutinous engineering and special principles behind it. Not all coasters are built equally, though. A handful of manufacturers from across the globe are responsible for fabricating these steel machines. Each manufacturer has its own unique style of track, support structure and train design. Moreover, each company follows different layout guidelines and principles. The specialties of three vastly different roller coaster manufacturers are compared throughout this series, including their history, highlights and pitfalls.

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment in a four-part “Beyond the Track” series by Coaster101 guest writer Ryan Cataldo.

The three manufacturers under consideration are Bolliger and Mabillard (B&M), Gerstlauer and Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC). To study their unique styles, a specific coaster built by each manufacturer is being evaluated.

1. Dueling Dragons, a defunct inverted coaster that once stood at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, is being analyzed to represent B&M’s coasters.

2. The Smiler, an infamous 14-looping coaster at Alton Towers, is explored to exemplify Gerstlauer’s engineering.

3. Finally, Iron Gwazi, a yet-to-open hybrid coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, is evaluated to understand RMC’s rides. Overall, this paper analyzes a coaster that does not exist anymore, one that is still operating as of May 2021 and an unopened ride as of the date of this paper’s authorship.

To streamline the study of each coaster and manufacturer, each was evaluated via a variety of lenses. The first of these lenses, Manufacturer Overview, gives brief insight into the history and basics of each engineering firm. Following, Important Dates and History provides a backstory of the conception, design process, opening, struggles and changes to each coaster. Afterwards, specific lenses such as Track Design, Support System, Train Design, Programming and Lift System meticulously explore the details of each topic. These five lenses were selected because each aspect is quite different between all three manufacturers. Then, Ride-Through Description provides a detailed written explanation of the coaster’s experience from an on-ride perspective. Thematic Marketing discusses the theme of the coaster and its related advertising campaign. To draw conclusions, Highlights of the Manufacturer and Pitfalls of the Manufacturer describe what the company excels at based on the previous analysis and what they can improve upon. To expand further, Redesign Considerations proposes realistic changes that could improve the coaster under consideration. The Summary lens restates all the notable points about the ride and why the coaster and its manufacturer are important to the amusement industry.

After the analysis of the details, strengths and weaknesses of each manufacturer, a new hypothetical coaster named Galactic Twist is proposed. This coaster would combine the best elements and engineering principles from all three manufacturers’ roller coasters into one exemplary ride. Towards the end of this study, potential ways that both guests and ride operators can improve safety are discussed.

Beyond the Track: Dueling Dragons (Dragon Challenge)

Dueling Dragons Manufacturer Overview

The first coaster under consideration is Dueling Dragons, an inverted dueling coaster built by Swiss roller coaster manufacturer Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M). B&M was founded in Monthey, Switzerland in 1988 by engineers Walter Bolliger and Claude Mabillard.

This manufacturer’s first ride was a stand-up coaster called Iron Wolf, which opened in 1990 at Six Flags Great America. Two years later, B&M would debut its inverted coaster model, a type of attraction that significantly heightened their reputation as a roller coaster manufacturer. Batman: The Ride, the world’s first inverted coaster, opened to the public in 1992 at Six Flags Great America, the same park as Iron Wolf. Soon, many other parks across the world would order an inverted coaster. Later in its life, B&M would design concepts such as the floorless coaster, the flying coaster and the hyper coaster, among many others.

B&M track at Six Flags Great America

Uniformity is what makes this manufacturer unique. B&M is known for following a tried-and-true method of building coasters, and as a result, it does not innovate very much. Every coaster B&M has ever built features the same type of track: its famous box track. B&M’s rides commonly navigate the same handful of elements. Vertical loops, zero-g rolls, cobra rolls and corkscrews are staples of B&M layouts, and all of these elements were featured in Dueling Dragons, in addition to many of its other coasters.

Important Dueling Dragons Dates and History

Dueling Dragons was an opening day attraction, and it opened to the public along with Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 1999. However, while an exact date is not known, the ride could have begun development and design anywhere from three to five years before that date, since the park began construction in 1995. In 1997, plans were filed with the city of Orlando’s building department. In 2010, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, which was a land themed to the J.K. Rowling-inspired films. At the land’s debut, Dueling Dragons was renamed Dragon Challenge to remain cohesive with the Harry Potter theme.

Photo © Stephen Dettling

Other than the name change and mild alterations to the queue, the coaster itself remained identical. In 2011, multiple incidents involving riders being struck by loose articles from the opposite train caused Universal to remove the dueling aspect of the ride. Consequently, the coaster lost popularity.

Furthermore, park guests and even cast members of the Harry Potter films disliked the amount of noise emitted by the coaster, in addition to the fact that its track was visible from within the land. According to Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles, “Even the stars of the Harry Potter films — typically ebullient with their praise for Universal — took passive-aggressive shots at the coaster’s look. (At the Diagon Alley event, several people lauded the second Wizarding World land by noting the lack of visible ‘roller coaster track’).”

Dragon Challenge (formerly Dueling Dragons) was ultimately closed and deconstructed in 2017, being the only B&M coaster to date to be completely scrapped.

Dueling Dragons Track Design

Dueling Dragons used the same type of track as all other B&M coasters do: its famous box track. This track consists of three main parts. The first part is a large hollow rectangular box, called a spine, which is sometimes filled with sand to reduce noise levels. The thickness of this box varies depending on how much stress is put on a given part of the coaster. The second section is steel cross-ties, which are thin steel sheets that are attached at regular intervals to the rectangular box. These cross-ties form a connection between the rails and the spine. The final part is the rails themselves, which may be filled with sand to reduce noise, rather than filling the spine.


Both separate layouts in Dueling Dragons use the same type of track design. Support System This coaster, like many other of B&M’s creations, used a system of hollow steel tubular towers as supports, which connected to their respective tracks via a system of thick bolts called fasteners. Additionally, the track was welded in place to the supports. The tubular towers were either subjected to compressive forces, where the train was exerting force downward, or tension forces, where the train was exerting force upward. These towers were held into the ground through a series of footers, which consisted of reinforced concrete. Reinforced concrete is a combination of steel and concrete to create a structure that is able to withstand both tension and compression forces.

Dueling Dragons Train Design

B&M uses a standard type of inverted train for all of its inverted coasters, with the number of rows sometimes varying. Dueling Dragons’ trains consisted of 8 rows of four people, totaling a massive capacity of 32 riders per train. The restraint system consisted of over-the-shoulder restraints (sometimes referred to as OTSRs) which descended over riders’ heads and kept them safe during high-intensity elements. The restraints used a ratcheting system, which consisted of a series of fixed positions that increased in tightness. A rider could lower the restraints to one of the fixed positions that fit them best. The trains were made of fiberglass and steel. On every row, there were two sets of three wheels that each grip the track on every train car. This is standard for most coasters, though usually, the top wheels are the largest, due to the fact that they bear the most weight.

These large wheels are called the road wheels. A metal brake fin ran along the top of the train, functioning as a way to interact with the magnetic brakes in order to slow the train down. Although identical mechanically to all of the B&M inverted coasters, Dueling Dragons’ trains were slightly different aesthetically. On both red and blue trains, the front row’s OTSRs were colored pink, along with other details like eyes and horns to make the front of the vehicle look like a dragon’s face. In addition, while most B&M inverts have smooth and uniform wheel covers, Dueling Dragons had themed wheel covers that looked like parts of a dragon. The sides of the rows of seats were also lined with what was supposed to look like dragon skin.

Programming Dueling Dragons

The ride had a computer system which ensured that the trains ran side by side. Both trains did not need to be released from the station simultaneously. For example, when the red train was released from the station, the computer checked if there was a train ascending the blue lift hill. If there was, the red lift hill would accelerate to catch up with the blue train and meet it at the top. However, if there was no train on the opposite lift hill, the program moved the chain at a slower pace. The train maintained this speed in anticipation of another set of riders dispatching and catching up to it. If no opposing train was dispatched in time, the ride vehicle would complete the course on its own. When the blue train was released from the station, the program would also check if there was a ride vehicle on the opposite lift hill. If it determined that there was, the chain would be told to move quickly, so the blue train could catch up with the red one. Once the trains were at the same spot on the lift hill, both chains would sync to maintain the same speed. This allowed the trains to crest the top of the lift hill at the same time, enabling them to duel.

Photo © Stuart Newsom

Later in the ride’s life, the dueling aspect posed a threat to riders’ safety. Incidents included a guest receiving a serious injury after being struck in the eye by a loose article from the opposing train. Other injuries occurred as a consequence of collisions with loose articles. In response, the ride was reprogrammed to do the opposite of its original function. The motors would manage the chain speed to purposely spread out trains on the lift hill. This would prevent the trains from dueling. The most important job of a ride’s programming is that it keeps the coaster trains from colliding with each other. This is done via block sections. A block section is a designated portion of a coaster’s layout with a method to stop a train at the end. A coaster must have at least one more block section than the number of trains running on the track. This can be compared to a sliding puzzle: there must be an empty block section ahead for a train to move forward. Dueling Dragons had five block sections. If a ride vehicle were to reach the end of any such section, and the block ahead of it was still occupied, the train would be stopped in order to avoid collision.

Dueling Dragons Lift System

The lift system for this coaster was almost identical to all the other lift systems used on B&M inverted coasters. Its major difference was that the lifts were programmed to have the ability to sync up trains for dueling. The lift hills consisted of a chain and a small staircase-like system called anti-rollback teeth. The trains consisted of a strong catchcar to engage with the chain. The trains also contained an anti-rollback dog, which is a steel plate that runs along the anti-rollback teeth. If the chain were to ever snap or stop, which was unlikely, but possible, the anti-rollback system would keep the train from falling back down the hill. Both lift hills were 125 feet.

Dueling Dragons Ride-Through Description

The red side of Dueling Dragons was named the Fire Dragon, then renamed to the Chinese Fireball after the Harry Potter overhaul. After dispatching from the station and ascending its lift hill alongside the blue track on its right, the coaster would descend a 115-foot left-turning drop, which led into an Immelmann inversion. The train would then glide over a parabolic hill known as a camelback, which flew over the blue track’s zero-g stall, creating a close-contact dueling interaction. The red side would whip through another Immelmann, followed by a sharp right turn.

A long section of straight track would guide the coaster into its signature element: the dueling loops, where both trains would zoom towards each other, then loop out of the way in unison. The train would traverse a left turn, then enter the ride’s interlocking corkscrews, where both trains would flip through a corkscrew inversion and then travel under the opposing track’s corkscrew. After rolling around a left turn and down a stretch of straight track, the ride would complete its final inversion: another corkscrew. Multiple left turns would lead the ride back to the unload platform.

Dueling Dragons/Dragon Challenge Layout

The blue side of Dueling Dragons was named the Ice Dragon, then renamed to the Hungarian Horntail after the Harry Potter overhaul. The blue train would release from the station and roll up the chain, with the red track on its left. Shortly after cresting the top of its lift hill, the train would descend a 95-foot right-turning drop, followed by a 270 o turnaround to its left. The train would then twist through a zero-g roll, right underneath the red side’s camelback hill, creating a near-miss dueling interaction. Immediately after, riders swung through a cobra roll, which is a sharp series of two inversions.

Photo © Brian Marshall

The ride vehicle would then glide down a long, straight track, lining the riders up for the dueling loops. The train coasted through its vertical loop, and then navigated a right turn, followed by the ride’s signature dueling corkscrews. The coaster would whip through its corkscrew and roll under red’s opposing element. Afterwards, the ride would meander through a series of left and right turns to navigate back to the station.

Dueling Dragons Thematic Marketing

When this coaster opened, it was marketed as one of the headliner attractions for Universal’s Islands of Adventure, though it did not receive any huge marketing or promotion as its own ride. The ride, although more themed than most of B&M’s other coasters, was still not as immersive as some of the other rides in the park. The ride had no overarching story, and the premise was rather simple: a battle between two dragons. The queue was themed to a castle that the dragons destroyed.

Photo © The Pop Culture Geek Network

During the 2010 re-theme to coincide with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the queue was slightly altered to include elements from the Harry Potter franchise, like the crashed Flying Ford Anglia and flags from the “houses” of the school.

The names of the tracks changed from a generic “Ice Dragon” to “Hungarian Horntail” and nondescript “Fire Dragon” to “Chinese Fireball,” both of which are names of dragons from the franchise.

Highlights of B&M Coasters

B&M coasters have great capacity, due to their large trains which can seat many riders. Dueling Dragons had an especially high capacity, due to its 32-passenger trains, and the fact that two trains were being filled at the same time. This gave this coaster nearly double the capacity of a normal B&M inverted coaster, which already has a high capacity. B&M coasters are quite reliable and do not break down very often. Most B&M coasters feature smooth and graceful elements, which are crowd-pleasers for parks. This manufacturer generally adheres to a tried-and-true method of building coasters, and it is not known for its innovation. Its coasters have reliable programming and do not feature complex elements such as launches. Coasters manufactured by B&M are known to have a long shelf life, and they can remain in parks for a long time without needing replacement.

Pitfalls of B&M Coasters

One downside of B&M coasters being so reliable is that they are expensive for parks. Since they have such a long shelf life, it costs B&M a large sum of money to produce them. This can make it more difficult for smaller parks with tighter budgets to order a B&M coaster. Another pitfall of B&M is that a lot of its coasters have very similar elements. Granted, many of their older coasters follow a very similar formula. However, recently this manufacturer has been working hard to try to break its mold and add new elements to its rides.

Banshee at Kings Island

Recent examples include Banshee, an inverted coaster at Kings Island in Ohio and Orion, a giga coaster at the same park. These coasters include some unique elements, such as the in-line twist and pretzel knot on Banshee, and the wave turn on Orion. Adding new elements like these is a step in the right direction for B&M.

Dueling Dragons Redesign Considerations

No roller coaster is perfect, and there always may be some leeway for redesign considerations. The roughest and most shaky element of Dueling Dragons was the cobra roll on the blue side. Its sharp transitions amounted to headbanging between the over-the-shoulder restraints. If the ride were to be redesigned, B&M could possibly envision a better element to turn the train around 180 degrees, even though the cobra roll is its go-to element for making a turn like that. Given the space constraints, a dive loop, cutback, or Immelmann would be ideal. Another issue with the coaster was that it was quite loud, and the roaring of the trains hurtling along the track was said to have broken the immersion of the guests inside The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. A fix for this would have been to fill the spine of the track with sand, so the coaster would not emanate as much noise.

Photo © Joe Shlabotnik

When a park wants a B&M coaster to make less noise, the ideal solution is to fill the rails or spine of the track with sand. If the park decides to fill the ride with sand early in development, the best option is to fill the rails with sand, as it requires less material. However, if a park decides that it wants a coaster to emanate less noise after it is built, the best option is to fill the spine with sand instead. Although this requires more sand, the park will not have to cut open the rails, which would risk making the coaster bumpier.

A final, small detail that could have improved the ride is the addition of theming. Universal is known for making attractions that tell a story and immersing its visitors within a fictional universe. It would be unrealistic to have theming throughout the entire ride, but some thematic elements could have been added at the end. For example, when guests were seated on the final brake run, Universal could have installed a nearby dragon animatronic, or to some extent made the area around it look like a mythical environment.

Dueling Dragons Summary

Dueling Dragons is an example of B&M engineering at its finest. It was the only dueling coaster manufactured by the company, and additionally was the only fully inverted dueling coaster in the world. The impressive programming, forceful inversions and exciting interactions with the other train contribute to its status as one of B&M’s most advanced roller coasters. Overall, the high-thrill and minimally-themed approach to the ride was not perfectly suited for a Universal park. The plot of land upon which it once stood is now occupied by a fitting coaster for the area. While the popularity of the B&M inverted model has declined for parks, the manufacturer is still selling its inverted coasters. It is a possibility that one day a park may resurrect the concept of Dueling Dragons in the form of a faster and fiercer inverted dueling coaster.

For more Dueling Dragons/Dragon Challenge, read our review from the coaster’s final season.

Did you ride Dueling Dragons/Dragon Challenge before it closed? Share your thoughts about the coaster in the comments section below.

About the Author:

Ryan Cataldo is currently a high school freshman with over eight years of experience building roller coaster models and studying their efficacy. His favorite subjects in school are math, science and band. He is highly interested in the mechanical and complex workings of roller coasters, and his articles explore these topics in depth. To this end, he publishes videos of models of K’nex Roller Coasters on his YouTube channel called DryEyeBuilds, with about 40,000 collective views.


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1 Response

  1. Jonathan says:

    Great article, Ryan! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and learned a lot about Dueling Dragons. Wish I could have had the chance to ride it.

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