Defunctland: The History of Busch Gardens’ Swinging Classic, the Big Bad Wolf

In 1992, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, then named Busch Gardens: The Old Country, unveiled a brand new ride from popular coaster manufacturer: Arrow Dynamics. Drachen Fire was a steel beast, providing riders with plenty of whiplash and headaches during its tenure. The coaster did not reflect well on Arrow. The company had a long history of producing some of the most famous amusement park attractions in the world, and Drachen Fire was part of a series of missteps that would eventually lead to their bankruptcy. Perhaps the most ironic part of Drachen Fire and its failure was its placement: The Oktoberfest section of Busch Gardens Williamsburg. For, in this section of the park, eight years prior to Drachen Fire’s debut, Busch Gardens had unveiled another coaster designed by Arrow. This one, however, received a much different response. [Wolf howling] In 1902, in Long Beach, California, a new type of rollercoaster debuted. Its design was much different than the simple wooden coasters of the time. The ride was called Bisby’s Spiral Airship, and it is considered to be the first suspended rollercoaster in the world. Riders boarded square gondolas and were taken to the main tower by a large lift hill. The gondolas then followed a simple spiral downward. This revolutionary ride closed around 1915, and a coaster of this kind would not be seen again until 1975 in Munich, Germany. Coincidentally debuting at the real Oktoberfest, Messerschmitt, a German airplane manufacturer, premiered their suspended coaster at the fair. Prominent German coaster designer Werner Stengel also worked on the project until Messerschmitt made the decision to cut costs by not implementing banked turns. Messerschmitt believed that the banking would occur naturally since the ride car swung. Stengel left the project due to this issue, leaving Messerschmitt to debut the coaster alone. Another famed German coaster designer, Anton Schwarzkopf, supposedly hated the fact that Messerschmitt was attempting to enter the coaster industry, since their company had previously only manufactured aircrafts. Messerschmitt’s suspended coaster, named Alpenflug, premiered at Oktoberfest to rave reviews. However, Stengel and Schwarzkopf were ultimately correct, as after its sixteen-day run, the coaster never reopened, despite Messerschmitt already starting construction on a second. This was because Alpenflug’s lack of banked turns was already causing structural stress during its short operation period. It wouldn’t be until six years later, in 1981, that another suspended coaster would open. And it seemed that this one was here to stay. News reporter: It swoops and dives from 100 feet above the ground, and there’s no track beneath it. Designers call ‘The Bat’ the world’s first and only hanging rollercoaster. More than a dozen men at the Arrow Huss company developed the plans. It took them three years, then construction began, and John Rood made sure their dream came true. John Rood: Well, I’ve [unintelligible- babysat?] this one for about eight months now. News reporter: So, do you like this more than probably any other ride around, or is this one of your favorites? John Rood: I think this is a revolutionary ride. One thing you can consider is that when you rode this, you rode a one of a kind, the only one in the world. News reporter: It cost Kings Island close to $4 million to provide the thrills and chills of The Bat. The public will begin defraying that cost when the park opens this season on Sunday. Narrator: On April 26, 1981, The Bat debuted at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio. Designed and manufactured by Arrow Development, the coaster received a large amount of media and public attention. Since the vast majority of the public were unaware of the world’s first two suspended coasters, the ride was considered to be completely new and original. Audiences loved The Bat, and it quickly became one of, if not the most, popular ride at the park. Unfortunately, it was also plagued with mechanical issues. The ride was wearing much quicker than expected, eventually leading to damage and cracks in the supports. An analysis of the ride’s damage revealed a major problem: They forgot to bank the turns. A quote from the report explained that the natural force of the ride was trying to twist the track to a banked position. Fixing these proved to be costly, and Kings’ Island decided to close the ride a mere two years after it opened, in 1983. Despite its failure, The Bat proved that general audiences and thrillseekers alike wanted more suspended coasters, prompting the development of the ride type to continue. Having been open for just over five years, Busch Gardens: The Old Country took note of this. A suspended rollercoaster would certainly have a huge draw for the still-young park. With this in mind, Busch Gardens turned to Anton Schwarzkopf, who already provided his popular Jumbo Jet and Wild Cat coaster designs to the Virginia Park. Perhaps still bitter about the Messerschmitt incident, Schwarzkopf agreed, and began designing a suspended coaster of his own. In his factory, he designed a transportable flying coaster, and he even constructed around 75% of it before abandoning the project due to financial issues. Busch Gardens Williamsburg then turned to Arrow Development, which had recently been absorbed into Arrow Huss. Around this time, Arrow was also asked by Six Flags AstroWorld to resurrect the concept used to create The Bat. Arrow agreed to build a suspended coaster at both parks, and they made adjustments to their original design to ensure that these coasters would last. Busch Gardens was to receive theirs first. In March of 1984. But due to construction delays, it would open after AstroWorld’s. However, the Six Flags coaster was nothing compared to what Arrow and Busch Gardens were able to construct. Commercial narrator: Imagine yourself alone in the woods, and then it happened. You’ve just been bitten by the Wolf. The Big Bad Wolf. The new ride coming to life at Busch Gardens. Narrator: The Big Bad Wolf opened at Busch Gardens on June 15, 1984. The majority of the coaster was hidden within the Oktoberfest woods, with only the main drop being seen from the park’s pathways. Guests could cross the Rhine River from Italy and enter the German Oktoberfest, they were then immediately greeted with the attraction’s entrance. Once inside the loading area, guests boarded their cars, and the ride operator told them to “enjoy travelling at the speed of fright.” The cars then exited the loading area and the ride began. Video narrator: The Wolf is about to take us on a seemingly out of control race through a maze of hills and obstacles. The ride takes about three minutes to travel the 2800 feet of track at speeds of up to 48 mph. And the chase is on! Narrator: After leaving the loading area, the coaster immediately dips to the left and reaches the first lift hill. It then climbs 50 feet and guests plunge a short distance, the track turning to the left as guests swing to the right. The coaster twists and turns through a Bavarian village. The cars free swinging whichever way their momentum takes them. The village was intricately themed and the track was placed in such a way that guests believed that they were about to crash into the models. Perhaps the best part is that these were a complete surprise to new riders, as they were hidden from the queue and the park’s pathways. With the only viewing area of the village being parts of Drachen Fire’s queue. After the sequence, the cars hit a brake run, leading to the second lift hill. Using the park’s terrain, this lift hill takes guests 100 feet in the air, since the hill rises with it, riders often didn’t realize how high they were before it was too late. The coaster plunges 80 feet towards the river, sharply banking right and throwing guests over the water. The turn is ended by a bank in the other direction, then a left turn and a return to the station. TV reporter: The Big Bad Wolf, Busch Garden’s rollercoaster with a new twist. The cars hang from the track, so those of you with hangups over hanging out at an angle of 110 degrees, had better stay home. They let us take our turn on the ride today before they shut it off. And I can tell you, authoritatively, that those who yell “Wolf” aren’t crying wolf. The ride is scary. Narrator: If that experience sounds mundane, that’s because it was considered to be a family coaster. The drops over the three minute ride were relatively small, and the coaster kept close to the ground. The extra thrill was added through the swinging design, and the experience was elevated through the theming and placement. The experience at night was an extra thrill, as lighting was scarce, making swinging through the woods and village all the more exhilarating. The coaster was practically flawless, so why did it close? On July 24, 2009, 25 years after the coaster debuted, Busch Gardens announced that it would close at the end of the season, as with most coasters, rumors circulated that it was due to an accident. While this isn’t the reason for its closure, Big Bad Wolf was not free from incident. In 1993, an employee was killed when he was sent into a restricted area to remove a branch from a security camera, the 63 year old was struck by an oncoming vehicle and later died after being taken to the hospital. Ten years later in 2003, an employee painting ride carts fell to his death when one of Big Bad Wolf’s cars overturned. Despite rumors, neither of these incidents had to do with the coaster’s closure, it was also believed that high operating costs and low ridership contributed to the decision. But the main reason Busch Gardens closed Big Bad Wolf seems to be that they just wanted a change. As they stated in the press release announcing the ride’s closure: “The Big Bad Wolf offers a thrilling ride experience coupled with aggressive ride dynamics. While it remains a safe attraction, it has simply reached the end of its service life.” This press release also claims that Big Bad Wolf is the world’s first suspended coaster… …which it is clearly not. A year after Big Bad Wolf would be demolished, the park announced a major renovation of the Oktoberfest area, the new area would be much more colorful and modern in an attempt to draw audiences to the far corner of the park. Big Bad Wolf seems to have been a mere victim of the renovation. Commercial narrator: Strange things happen in the Black Forest. Where things aren’t always what they seem. Because thrills hide in the shadows. Just waiting at every turn. Verbolten! A new multi-launch coaster coming to Busch Gardens. Brave the Black Forest. Narrator: Big Bad Wolf was demolished, the only remnants being bits of the concrete foundation. Three years later in 2012, the land formerly occupied by the coaster would become home to Verbolten, a family coaster themed after the Autobahn. It is a worthy successor, with unique ride elements and a large indoor portion. It also pays tribute to its predecessor. The indoor section has three randomized storylines, with the lighting and sounds changing depending on the program. These are the Spirit of the Forest, Lightning Storm and Big Bad Wolf. In a tribute to the closed ride, some Verbolten riders are given a trip through a Dark Forest, where they are being stalked by a red eyed Wolf. Also, each car has a specialized license plate, the orange car reads: “WOL FXING”, or “Wolf Crossing” in another tribute to the Big Bad Wolf. Finally, the finale of the ride follows the exact same path as the former suspended coaster, diving toward the river and turning a few times before entering the station. Verbolten is a quality ride, and it makes the loss of Big Bad Wolf a little easier to stomach. As for the rest of the world’s suspended coasters that remembered to bank the turns, many have faced a similar fate to that of Big Bad Wolf. While many rides by other manufacturers still exist, only five of the Arrow suspended coasters are still operating today. One is actually The Bat at Kings Island, on the other side of the park from the original. This coaster was originally themed after “Top Gun”, before being stripped of its branding. Kings Island payed tribute to former coaster by re-theming it to The Bat. That said, no suspended coaster, operating or defunct, seems to be as beloved as the Big Bad Wolf. It was a truly impressive ride and it will be remembered as one of Arrow’s best, which says a lot. Many fans are still upset that it’s gone, but it is far from forgotten. So that said, were you afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Hmm, I wonder whatever happened to XLR-8?

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