The concept that launched a thousand coasters
Lift hills aren’t the only way to get the party started
Launched coasters are having a moment.
They’ve been in vogue for a while actually, but I was really struck when I pondered over the list of coasters that opened in the U.S. and Canada this year. Of the 14 major new thrill machines, 7 of them are launched. That’s pretty significant. (Also pretty significant: Only one of the new coasters is wooden. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Why have launched coasters become so popular? How have they evolved? Place your head against the headrest and hold on tight as we launch into the topic.
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For decades, roller coasters were more or less the same: A chain would yank the train up a lift hill, and gravity took over from there. The introduction of Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland in 1959, the first tubular steel coaster, made a lot of subsequent innovations possible, but the chain lift hill generally reigned supreme regardless of the type of structure or track.
Starting in the late 1970s, however, coaster designers started developing other ways to propel trains, and the launched coaster was born. The first attempts were a bit crude, including the weight drop launch, the electric winch launch, and the flywheel launch. There weren’t too many rides produced using these launch systems, and only a handful remain operating today. One of the most notable is Disneyland Paris’ version of Space Mountain, which uses an electric winch launch to great effect.
Many of the early launched rides were simple shuttle coasters, such as Montezooma’s Revenge, which blasted forward into a loop and up a dead-end spike, then dropped backwards into the loop, through the station, and up a spike on the other end before returning to the station. The classic ride is getting a makeover and will feature a randomized launch that will initially send it both forwards and backwards out of the station. MonteZOOMa: The Forbidden Fortress was supposed to have reopened already, but is delayed until later this year.
Tire-propelled launch systems, which were first introduced in 1982, have shown more staying power. Perhaps the most famous example is The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Orlando, which launches uphill through a “gamma-ray accelerator” and hits 67 mph. Fun fact: Universal built a dedicated electrical power substation for the ride, because the city’s grid couldn’t reliably generate enough juice for the power-hogging launches. The new Arctic Rescue at SeaWorld San Diego uses a tire-propelled launch.
Launch coasters really kicked into overdrive with the introduction of magnetically launched rides in 1996. Premier Rides was the first on the block with its Flight of Fear rides for Kings Dominion and Kings Island. They feature linear induction motor (LIM) technology. Intamin countered in 1997 with Superman The Escape at Six Flags Magic Mountain, which uses linear synchronous motors (LSM) to catapult its trains 100 mph up a 415-foot-tall tower.
I don’t pretend to know the difference between the two systems, nor do I fully understand how they work, other than my (very) rudimentary knowledge of electro-magnetic propulsion. But I do know that, for whatever reason, LSM technology now predominates and accounts for more than half of all the operating launched coasters. There are still LIM coasters coming on line, however, including Big Bear Mountain at Dollywood. Coaster designers have conjured other ways to send passengers literally and figuratively screaming out of the station, including compressed air and hydraulic launch systems, but there are only a few rides that use them.
I took some poetic license with the headline for this article; all told, the number of launched coasters out there is closer to 200. More are debuting every year, however. Why are they so popular?
Initially, it was probably the novelty of the concept that captivated parks and their fans. The idea of tearing out of the station and immediately entering a loop without having to endure a poky lift hill is both intriguing and terrifying (in a good, coaster kind of way). The sheer thrills that launched coasters deliver continue to enthrall riders today.
But there are many other reasons why designers keep going to the launch toolbox. They enable coasters to achieve high speeds and potent thrills without the need for tall hills or enormous structures. Consider Furius Baco at PortAventura Park. The Intamin ride hits a furious 84 mph in no time flat, but essentially foregoes any hills and has a simple oval layout that’s a mere few feet above the ground. They also allow coasters to break records without having to clickety-clack forever up crazy-high lift hills. Both the world’s tallest coaster, the 456-foot King Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure, and the world’s fastest coaster, the 149-mph Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, incorporate hydraulic launches.
Coasters with launch capabilities can behave in ways that would otherwise be impossible on more traditional rides. Pantheon at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, for example, incorporates a rolling LSM launch as well as a multi-pass LSM boost (in which the same magnetic launch motor accelerates the train both forwards and backwards a number of times) combined with a switch track and a dead-end spike to deliver a beguiling ride.
And then there is the welcome trend of E-Ticket attractions that combine thrilling coasters with dark rides. The coaster is as much a ride system as a thrill machine in these hybrids. Wildly ambitious and sophisticated examples include Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Epcot and Mission Ferrari at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. Launch technology gives designers the precision to synchronize the ride profile with the effects and the overarching story. It also make it possible to deliver coaster thrills for an indoor attraction without having to build a tall, enormous show building to house the structure.
A LIM launch hurtles passengers for high-speed encounters with the beast in the second half of Universal’s Revenge of the Mummy. But in the more leisurely paced first half of the attraction, it uses what’s known as “SLIMs,” or slow LIMs, to take guests through the animatronic-filled sets for the psychological thrill ride.
Roller coasters continue to rule the midways. But, with launch systems, many of them have changed in alluring and previously unfathomable ways. These are exciting times for ride fans. It’ll be wild to see what the future holds as more designers get up to speed with launched coasters.
In what other ways have launch technologies changed the nature of coasters? How might the rides continue to evolve? What are your favorite launched coasters?