A Coaster Tour That's a Real Scream
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Hang around a group of roller coaster enthusiasts long enough, and the conversation eventually drifts to matters of G-force, Immelmann loops and ERT. They'll casually drop terms such as B&M (as in Bolliger & Mabillard, the Swiss firm known for designing some of the world's coolest coasters) and positively swoon over such commonplace occurrences as air time and banked dives.
The one thing you will never hear them utter? A scream.
I noticed this recently when I took a ride on Griffon with several coaster fanatics. Griffon is the magisterial, blue-tracked, floorless dive coaster at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, and each of its trains contains three rows of 10 seats. As recommended by the fanatics and Busch Gardens personnel, I deposited myself in the far right of the front row, a seat that promised the twin pleasures of free-falling from a height of 205 feet and almost crashing into several concrete poles.
"This is great, huh?" said Barry Marushi, somehow capable of small talk as Griffon click-click-clicked its way to the top of the hill. Marushi reported that it was his 17-year-old son, Hayden, also on the ride, who'd first heard about Busch Gardens' Behind the Scenes: A Roller Coaster Experience tour, which is how dad found himself conversing at a 45-degree angle with a complete stranger -- click-click-click -- at 8:30 one morning in southeastern Virginia. We'd already inspected the maintenance bays and interlocking loops on the Loch Ness Monster, learned about the challenges and physics of Alpengeist and, best of all, gotten some exclusive ride time (that's ERT) before the park opened to the public at 10.
"We're always thinking about possible additional revenue streams, of course," said Derek Bowie, Busch Gardens' director of operations, speaking with undiminished enthusiasm about a place where he has worked for more than 20 years. "We thought people might be interested in guided tours of the coasters."
Were they ever. Word quickly spread online via groups such as American Coaster Enthusiasts and fan sites such as Screamscape, and since the tours began last month, dozens of people have happily plopped down $74.95 for a chance to see how the sausage is made. (Up to 16 can take the 2 1/2 -hour tour, which is offered on Friday and Saturday mornings only.) Few, it seems, have left disappointed.
"It was phenomenal," Kenneth Moore said when I telephoned him later, seeking an expert's opinion. Moore is a member of American Coaster Enthusiasts and had taken the Behind the Scenes tour last month. "It's very unique. There's no other park out there that gives you a tour that's that great and that intimate. . . . A lot of people think coasters are just smoke and mirrors. You just put wheels on a body and run it up a hill. But there's a lot of engineering and technology involved, and you get to see that."
* * *
"Yeah. Great. Yeah," I lied to Marushi, eking out a reply as our Griffon car finally reached the top of the hill, slowly winding its way toward the notorious initial plunge ("notorious" meaning 90 degrees). We rolled over the edge and . . . stopped, hanging over our fate for three interminable seconds, at which point there came a deafening shriek.
"Ahhhhh! Aooahhhh! Mrrrrrrrr!"
It was me. Only me.
Back in the queue house, a scant 180 seconds later, I tried to exercise damage control ("That was awwwwwesome," etc.), but the humiliating die had been cast. I noticed that everyone was staying far away from me as we exited the ride. Not even the woman who said she was a nurse -- the same one who wondered whether they made a Griffon hoodie she could wear with her scrubs, because while T-shirts are nice, it's cold in the hospital -- gave me a sympathetic look. For the rest of the tour, I kept to the back of the pack.
"I'll show you one of this ride's unique features," said Vic Wang, a young man from Montgomery County who happened to be working the Griffon controls on this day. "If I push this button" -- one among a panel blinking red or green -- "we can actually back the ride up. You can't usually do that with coasters. It's great if someone gets sick or if they're hysterically crying and want off."
I kept my head down during the uncomfortable pause that followed.
When you truly love something, it's natural to want to know everything about it. But that can be risky. Just ask any marshmallow lover how he feels after going inside the junk food factories on that Food Network show. And yet, though Behind the Scenes involved more discussion of the three types of coaster wheels (guide, upstop and road) than seems healthy, my esteem for those death-cheating monstrosities of wood and steel only grew.
Who knew that parks had water dummies (plastic humanoid "riders" filled with enough water to make them as heavy as the average American, who at last count weighed in at about 180 pounds) to test the rides? Who knew about all the video monitoring? Who knew that they'd let you take an elevator to the top of Griffon?
"That was the best part. Nobody gets to do that," Hayden Marushi said of the group's ride to the top of the coaster in a trolley cart, where we got out and gingerly plied the catwalks normally reserved for employees inspecting the tracks. The view was incomparable: above us a shimmering sky, in one direction Chesapeake Bay and the James River ghost fleet, in another never-ending forests of green, and below us -- something.
I would've looked, but I didn't want to scream.