Granny, what big teeth you have! Today, we’re going to race through the misty, dark forests of Virginia and recount the almost unbelievable fable of one of the most beloved lost roller coasters ever. Born of a fable and brought to life through cutting-edge roller coaster technology, this very unique ride was a headlining attraction at what has been regarded as the most beautiful theme park on Earth. And now, it’s gone.
You’ve been part of our Lost Legends series, where we dive deep into forgotten attractions to immortalize their stories. We’ve set out to capture the tales of these rides – how they were born, what they were like, and why they’re gone today – so that new generations of theme park fans can understand what the big deal was, and why people miss these attractions even now. It’s your comments and memories that keep Alien Encounter, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, the Peoplemover and Walt's Tomorrowland, and Son of Beast alive, to name just a few.
Today, we’re hoping that you’ll help us breathe life into memories of a roller coaster that impressed fans for a quarter of a century before disappearing at the height of its popularity: Big Bad Wolf at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. This spectacular, suspended swinging coaster helped redefine what a family coaster could be, thrilling young and old as it raced through the woods of Virginia “at the speed of fright.” We're happy to tell the tale today, but we need your help: after you read, be sure to share your memories of Big Bad Wolf in the comments below to keep its memory growling ahead into a new generation.
Busch Gardens: The Old Country
You might imagine that the story begins with three little pigs or a little girl in a red hooded cloak, but in this Big Bad Wolf’s story, it begins in the dense forests of Virginia. Busch Gardens Williamsburg opened in 1975 as Busch Gardens: The Old Country, a European-themed counterpart to an African-themed Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. Both parks reside in the shadow of massive breweries operated by Anheuser-Busch. And indeed, both were owned for most of their history by Anheuser-Busch as part of their Busch Entertainment division (which also owned the family of SeaWorld parks and Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. The whole portfolio was sold in 2008 and the now-standalone chain was renamed SeaWorld Parks).
Complimenting the revered and historic Colonial Williamsburg nearby, Busch Gardens: The Old Country served as a cultural landmark celebrating the origins of American immigrants during the colonial age and the traditions and stories they brought with them. Truly a theme-park, Busch Gardens is made up of elegant “hamlets” that each could stand-in for real villages from the countries they emulate. Detailed, warm, thoughtful, and given a storybook twist, these wonderful themed lands benefit from the park’s placement among the densely forested hillsides and naturally rolling terrain of Virginia with bridges, waterfalls, rivers, and gardens set among the quaint hamlets.
Busch Gardens is a rare example of the kind of theme park you could spend a full day at without riding any attractions and still leave satisfied. Maybe that helps explain why the park has been named the Most Beautiful Park in the World for 25 consecutive years without stumbling once.
That’s not to say Busch Gardens doesn’t have thrills. It does. “Quality over quantity,” you might say, as the humble park today offers just six adult coasters (with a seventh on the way for 2017), but each is among the best of its kind on Earth due in part to the beautiful setting and to the careful and thoughtful themes and stories applied overtop what would be generic thrill machines at other parks. (For example: Alpengeist, a B&M inverted roller coaster like Cedar Point’s Raptor or Islands of Adventure’s Dueling Dragons, but here cast an Alpine ski lift terrorized by the Abominable Snowman, or Griffon a B&M Dive Machine with massive 10-across trains soaring through a delicate French village, swooping through town before landing in an photogenic splash pool, above.)
But in the back corner of the park, set back into a towering forest high above the winding Rhine River below is one of the most revered roller coasters ever to prowl through the park’s forests, and perhaps one of the most retroactively loved thrill rides in the United States.
How did it come about? As always, an understanding of the end starts at the beginning.
For just a moment, let’s leave behind the dense forests of Virginia and fly to the Midwest, right along the Ohio River. In 1980, Kings Island near Cincinnati was working closely with a roller coaster manufacturer called Arrow Dynamics. Arrow, for its part, had already cemented its place in the history of the roller coaster thanks to Matterhorn Bobsleds, the world’s first tubular steel-tracked roller coaster that had opened at Disneyland in 1959.
Arrow was at it again two decades later, developing a cutting-edge ride for Kings Island that would redefine what a roller coaster could be. The new coaster model, which they called a “suspended coaster”, would look quite a bit different from everything that came before. For one thing, as its name implied, the roller coaster cars would hang down from the track above. But most incredibly, those suspended cars would be hanging from jointed arms, able to sway side-to-side at each bend in the track, banking and swaying along the ride’s course.
The idea was phenomenal and groundbreaking. The prototype at Kings Island? Not so much. The Bat roller coaster opened in 1981 and by 1984, it was gone. Built in an era before computer simulations could precisely anticipate the force and stress on each square inch of track, The Bat had at least one fatal flaw: the track itself wasn’t banked sufficiently, as designers expected the swinging cars to do the banking. As a result, shock absorbers in the hanging arms wore out and stress on the track necessitated the reconfiguring of steel supports and constant track work.
The inherent issues in The Bat forced Kings Island’s hand and the ride closed permanently after just a few years. (Arrow did return to the same plot of land in 1987 to build a much different roller coaster, Vortex, re-using the Bat’s Victorian bell tower station. Vortex still operates on the land today, and careful observers will see a cut-out for The Bat’s suspended track in Vortex’s train barn, as well as concrete footers leftover from The Bat dotted along the ground beneath Vortex.)
A failed prototype at Kings Island should sound familiar. We recently explored two 21st century attempts at the park in their own Lost Legends entries: Son of Beast, the world’s tallest, fastest, and only looping wooden roller coaster and TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, one of the best themed thrill rides ever, much less at a seasonal park in Ohio. Both opened within two years of each other, and both lasted barely a decade before closing forever... The price of innovation in the industry.
Faced with the failure of The Bat, Arrow had to press forward. Back to the drawing board, they would refine the suspended coaster concept and in 1984, they would open two, both of which would thrill audiences for two decades. The most renowned suspended coaster ever was about to open at Busch Gardens. What was it like? Read on…