roller-coasters

New roller coasters offer twists, turns and one-of-a-kind thrills

May 22, 2012 at 8:20 AM ET

Courtesy of Dollywood /
The Wild Eagle reaches 21 stories above Dollywood, giving riders a speeding view of the Smoky Mountains.

Thrill-seekers hoping to go bigger, higher or faster on new roller coasters this year may be disappointed — although they’ll probably be screaming too loud to pout about it for long.

From outstretched wings to water elements, ride designers and theme park operators are upping the thrill factor through design and technology rather than vying for new records for height or speed.

“The technology and design have evolved more in the last couple of years than they have in the last 20,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based theme park consulting company.

The result is that this year’s coaster crop “offers really, really different thrills,” said Gary Slade, publisher and editor in chief of Amusement Today, an industry trade magazine. “It’s a nice assortment of rides and experiences.”

If that sounds like fun, climb aboard, buckle up and ride along:

Wild Eagle, Dollywood
Scream season got off to a high-flying start when this raptor-themed ride took flight on March 23. The first wing coaster in the U.S., it features floorless cars in which riders sit on either side of the track, feet dangling as they fly through four inversions, including a giant loop, zero-gravity roll and giant flat spin, as they soar through the surrounding forest. “Swooping through the natural terrain of the forest really gives you the feeling of flying,” said Robb Alvey, creator of ThemeParkReview.com.

X Flight, Six Flags Great America

Courtesy of Six Flags Great America /
X Flight reaches 55 mph during 3,000 feet of intense drops and five inversions.

Take a 12-story first drop, five inversions and nothing beneath your feet but a whole lot of air and you’ve got X Flight, the nation’s second wing coaster. This one, though, adds another twist — a vertical, keyhole-shaped flythrough that you approach horizontally before making a last-second 90-degree pivot to pass through, presumably intact. “No matter how many times you ride it, you still want to tuck your legs in under your seat,” said Slade.

Verbolten, Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Courtesy of Busch Gardens Williamsburg /
Verbolten's 48-inch ride-height requirement allows parents to introduce their young ones to zooming thrills.

Opened on May 18, this “immersive thematic attraction” simulates a car-based trip through a “forbidden” Black Forest, complete with high-speed turns, a free-fall drop, and sound, light and other environmental effects. It’s designed to be more exhilarating than overpowering — its top speed is a family-friendly 53 mph — although the final, 88-foot drop to the park's Rhine River will likely tighten certain body parts. “It perfectly fills that family thrill ride void left by Big Bad Wolf,” said Alvey.

Goliath, Six Flags New England

Courtesy Six Flags New England /
Goliath, which opens May 25, features a 65 mph free-fall.

They call it a coaster of epic proportions but it’s not the size that matters on this looping boomerang ride. Strapped in face-down, riders are hauled to the top of a nearly 20-story tower, where they’re released for a 65-mph free-fall, sent through a 102-foot vertical loop and a 110-foot butterfly (twisting) turn and rocketed up a second tower. Don’t relax, though, because you then get to do most of it again — facing backwards. “If you're scared of heights or going backwards,” said Alvey, “it’ll challenge your fears." Opening May 25.

Manta, SeaWorld San Diego

Seaworld /
Manta, which opens May 26, features 20-seat, manta ray-shaped trains that skim the water.

This launch coaster won’t be the tallest (highest drop: 54 feet) or fastest (top speed: 43 mph) ride when it opens on May 26 but it may be the most unusual. Sitting in 20-seat, ray-shaped trains, riders are launched out of a tunnel enhanced with oversized projections of rays and put through more than a dozen turns, including one in which the train’s wings skim through the water. “It doesn’t have a big vertical span,” said Slade, “but when you’re that close to the ground, it can really heighten the sense of speed.”

Of course, if you still feel the need for speed (and/or height), rest assured you’ll get your chance. At least three more coasters — Apocalypse at Six Flags America, Skyrush at Hersheypark and Superman: Ultimate Flight at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom — are expected to open later this spring.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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