It may have been the first time in sports history that snow and snowboarding were incompatible. But here the snow came, landing in drizzling flakes on Tara Tongco's hard hat -- a freak spring storm hindering the completion of Six Flags Elitch Gardens' new Halfpipe thrill ride.
Standing at the base of the hundred-foot-tall, U-shaped roller coaster that will open later this month, Tongco stared into the shallow pit where work on a mountain-resort-themed plaza would be under way -- if the earth wasn't half frozen and muddy. So instead, the Elitch spokeswoman pointed out the numerous evergreens recently implanted to create that on-the-slopes feel and, mounted on the tracks above them, the 39-foot-long, ten-foot-wide snowboard where sixteen "boarders" at a time will do the dew in view of downtown Denver.
Compared to newfangled scream machines like the Accelerator and the Flying Coaster, Tongco admits that the nearby Dragon and Rainbow rides (which nostalgic Denverites remember from the old Elitch location in northwest Denver) look somewhat out of place. Those rides will seem even more antiquated after the debut of the multimillion-dollar Halfpipe, which Six Flags corporate honchos have put at the heart of Elitch's marketing strategy this year.
"Stoked to be here, pumped to ride!" goes the new catch-phraseology. And the Halfpipe's location at the southern edge of the park -- not to mention the ride's fadeout paint job of red, orange and yellow, colors intended to "look snowboardish," according to Tongco -- make it clearly visible to bros and Betties of the right-dude demographics speeding past on I-25.
"People who like extreme sports or thrills are going to like this," says Tracy Durham, Elitch's marketing director. "And we use that theme because it ties in with Colorado and we can tie in professional snowboarders and riders with the promotion of the park."
Brain-sloshing concept rides aren't a new phenomenon at large theme parks, but they're increasingly being used as dramatic centerpieces to keep the spectacle-hungry public coming through the gates. This is particularly critical in Colorado, where alternative outdoor activities compete with Elitch's $37-a-day, pre-packaged kicks.
Raul Pinto, the 29-year-old co-owner of Satellite Snowboard shop, says that some young people are frequenting amusement parks less because they can find their thrills elsewhere -- whether it's skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross, BMX or rollerblading. "Wait," he adds quickly, "don't put rollerblading in there." Just a half-mile down the Platte River from Elitch's is the Denver Skatepark, where hundreds of kids spend their days hurling themselves into the concrete depths of the enormous, twelve-foot-deep "Brazilian Bowl."
But Elitch's Halfpipe isn't going to be some stroll through sissy town. It was created by Intamin, a Swiss monorail manufacturer that's also known for building some of the most insane amusement park rides in the world, according to Joel Rogers, whose coastergallery.com features an extensive roller-coaster database. Along with constructing Elitch's Tower of Doom, Intamin is credited with the record-breaking Millennium Force coaster at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, a ride that held the world record for height and speed until Intamin followed up with Top Thrill Dragster, a 420-foot-tall, 120-mph "strata-coaster" at Cedar Point.
Although Elitch's Halfpipe will be the only such ride in this country, Intamin built a similar ride last year at the Sarkanniemi amusement park in Finland. The roller-coaster car -- or snowboard -- is propelled by a system of linear-induction motors that uses a series of electromagnets to launch the coaster back and forth on two opposing vertical tracks. Boarders -- struggling against the G-forces to flash rocker horns at their friends -- will "spin countless 360s" while strapped into one of two circular, independently rotating bindings, according to Elitch's promotional materials.
In other words, "It's going to be kind of a puker, I think," says construction manager Michael Combs. During the 25 years he's been with Elitch's, he's taken a few rounds on every ride he's built -- but he thinks he'll pass on the Halfpipe. "Just the motion in it, it's going to be completely different from any other ride we've got in here," he says. "When you go to the top, not only do you have the freefall feeling as you're going down, but you've also got the spins."
Combs only got the word last December that Six Flags wanted to have the Halfpipe ready for Elitch's 2004 season, and he had to squeeze about a year's worth of work into four months. While the prefabricated sections from Liechtenstein were being floated across the Atlantic and then trucked up from Texas, Combs had to think about zoning, wastewater, transformers and laying foundations -- not to mention finding somewhere to put the ride. Unlike many theme parks, Elitch's is landlocked between the Platte and a railroad yard, which makes ride real estate very precious.
"One ride moves in there and you have to find a home for three others," Combs says. For the Halfpipe, his crew had to knock out the scooter-car building as well as move the Eurobungie and a few shops. But the fact that the Halfpipe occupies a relatively small footprint compared to other high-profile rides was one of the things that made it appealing to park planners. Even the cylinder-shaped Tower of Doom required nine piers drilled down to bedrock and topped with a broad (and expensive) spider web of rebar and concrete. That makes the Halfpipe a relative real-estate bargain -- and a potential marketing bonanza.
According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the theme-park industry grew from $5.7 billion in 1990 to $10.3 billion last year. Advances in technology have enabled designers to devise more intense, adrenaline-gushing rides, and with this rise in the stakes, amusement parks have been feeling greater competition to come up with the next great thing. "It's kind of like an arms race," says Rogers, who has ridden over 315 coasters himself. "Somebody builds a big one, and then someone else says, 'We need something bigger.'"
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That someone's probably not a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. This group takes roller coasters very seriously, and many members of ACE's regional chapter still haven't gotten over the trauma of Elitch's move to the Platte Valley. Barry Mannes, president of that chapter, is withholding any opinion on the Halfpipe until he tries it out, but says he's already wary of so-called "spin and barf" rides. "I'm getting too old for that stuff," he adds.
While Elitch's may be willing to lose fans of traditional coasters, even the Halfpipe's target market has doubts about the ride. Although members of Breckenridge's freeride team will be among the Halfpipe's first official riders, their counterparts on the University of Colorado snowboard team don't seem particularly moved by the concept -- though it does inspire some X-treme sarcasm. At a recent party, as team members stood around a laptop running images from the Halfpipe's promotional CD-Rom, their comments ranged from "Are they clicker bindings or are they step-in?" to "How do you grab the board?" and a straight-faced "Where's the style? Snowboarding is about style, you understand."
That's about as serious a critique as you could hope to get from hard-core boarders who've watched their sport used to sell everything from zit cream to SUVs. A few CU team members did say they'd check out the Halfpipe -- but only after noting that the ride was probably as accurate a simulator of snowboard half-pipe riding as was, say, falling out of a building.
"It seems like a cool idea, but if they're trying to market it to people our age or our interests, it won't fly at all," says twenty-year-old Chris Avantaggio, who rides for Burton and recently competed in half-pipe at the Vans Triple Crown. "Personally, I'd be just as likely to go for, you know, a regular roller coaster."