A new era of the "Coaster Wars" is upon us... but it looks a whole lot different than the one you're used to.
In the evolving industry of thrill rides, something has changed... With records broken and re-broken, ceilings shattered, and park lineups packed with giant coasters, the age of being the "biggest," "fastest," and "tallest" has turned out to be pretty unsustainable. Instead, a new model is emerging – one where parks compete not with each other, but with themselves, looking for custom, personality-packed rides that can be beautifully integrated into their parks existing collections, history, and legends...
Standing at the precipice of a new age of coaster construction – one where one-of-a-kind, personalized rides are the wave of the future – Busch Gardens has set a new standard with its 2022 additions – PANTHEON in Virginia, and IRON GWAZI in Florida. Today, we'll take a whirlwind tour of Coaster Wars past, then see how these two rides prove that the era of off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter coasters is officially at an end...
The Coaster Wars
Brief review: It's hard to find an amusement park in North America (or beyond) that wasn't touched in some way by the "Coaster Wars." You have to remember that steel roller coasters really only came into maturity in the 1970s, when Arrow Dynamics and its Corkscrews, Double Loops, and Mine Trains became mainstays of midways across the country.
The roller coasters designed by Arrow and its contemporaries look practically naive today. That's largely thanks to the ascent of new manufacturers in the '90s that we've seen again and again in our coaster-focused stories. By far the two most prominent – Intamin and B&M – spent much of the '90s innovating with new ride technologies, new seating arrangements, and increasingly-bigger installations bought by competitive coaster parks at the height of their ambition.
It's the "Coaster Wars" that packed Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks with ever-growing ride collections, super-charging regional players across the country with lineups exceeding 10, 12, 14, 16 roller coasters. Were it not for this era of (over)expansion, we may never have seen coasters shatter the 200, 300, even 400 foot height barrier. The race to become the "Roller Coaster Capital of the World" inspired an era of acquisitions and expansions the likes of which we may never see again.
It was a golden era... if you were a coaster enthusiast, and one with a penchant for extremes at that. In retrospect, the "Coaster Wars" might've inspired parks to focus too much on bare steel thrills. Many major parks went for those decades without much investment in family attractions, entertainment, dark rides, or dining. (It's why Cedar Point – ostensibly among the best parks on the planet – has literally not one dark ride or indoor coaster.) But that's a curse that at least two parks managed to escape...
The Busch Gardens Difference
Against all odds, both Busch Gardens parks managed to escape the "Coaster Wars" in remarkable shape: without the era's vast overreliance on "record-breaking" steel rides plopped down along midways, but with a totally-respectable coaster count hovering around 10 each. That's why, on paper, they'd clearly read as thrill-focused parks equivalent to your regional Six Flags or Cedar Fair park... But in practice, Busch Gardens' "quality over quantity" approach and slow evolution has built in each park some of the strongest mix of "thrills" and "theme" you'll find.
In Williamsburg, Griffon (above) has long since ceased being the tallest or fastest dive coaster on Earth... but arguably, it's still the best. Why? Well certainly for one, we know that "bigger isn't always better." But more to the point, Griffon doesn't feel culled from a catalogue and plopped down on an expansion pad... it's built into the park both physically and figuratively! Guests pass through a pastel French village of ice cream shops and wine tasting, crossing an iron bridge over its first drop. They queue and board in a open-air, wood-beam winery beneath flickering laterns, and then soar over a countryside vineyard before splashing down in a picturesque pond. (For all its gargantuan statistics, Cedar Point's equivalent Valravn – with its metal station and grassy lot – feels so much less like a headliner, and more like an interchangable amusement park midway ride.)
And so it goes for Loch Ness Monster – a slithering, '70s Arrow coaster through the Scottish highlands with interlocking loops; Verbolten – a mysterious, one-of-a-kind family coaster launching into the lore of Germany's Black Forest; Invadr, a GCI wooden coaster that sees Vikings tear through the hillside of New France; Alpengeist, a B&M inverted coaster that sends your ski-lift hurtling through Swiss chalets and snowy chasms; even Tempesto, stylizing an off-the-shelf Premier Sky Rocket II as an Italian daredevil sideshow.
Likewise, at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay – themed to Africa – lands devoted to Egypt, Nairobi, the Congo, Morocco, and more present a vibrant, rich, romantic picture of African culture, with a focus on wildlife and wild rides. Among its iconic lineup of coasters (most paired with a Virginian equivalent) stands Kumba – a roaring B&M classic; Montu, an inverted coaster diving through Egyptian ruins and sand pits...
...Cobra's Curse – a spinning family coaster in the shadow of a "recently-excavated" 80-foot tall stone serpant deity. SheiKra – a B&M dive coaster plunging into misty temples; and Cheetah Hunt – a multi-launch coaster racing through waterfall canyons and temple trenches alongside the park's serengheti.
The point is: The "Coaster Wars" as we knew them have ended. Any park that wants a hypercoaster has one. And so it goes for inverted coasters, dive coasters, wing coasters, even – increasingly – gigacoasters! But Busch Gardens' formula of custom, integrated, personality-packed rides gives us a blueprint of what a "thrill-theme" balance looks like... And more to the point, how the "quality over quantity" formula of customized rides beautifully integrated into the park doesn't mean an end to intensity... After all, Busch Gardens' 2022 rides not only represent two of the best coasters on Earth, but the perfect examples of what's to come in the next era of the "Coaster Wars..."
I believe these “new” in park coaster wars were actually started when Dollywood announced Lightning Rod. That assured in a brand new era of parks wanting a new “signature “ ride, instead of a series of fillers.