In what’s become a calling card for Intamin’s cutting-edge, boundary-pushing, line-toeing rides, Top Thrill Dragster worked like a charm… except when it didn’t.
Just three weeks after opening, on May 26, 2003, the high-tension launch cable that rapidly winds to propel the train came loose, resulting in several days of downtime for the park’s then-signature ride. A week later, a faulty valve in the hydraulic system left the ride closed… for the duration of the international CoasterMania event. The ride was entirely shuttered from June 20 – July 4, due to errors in the hydraulic system, missing Independence Day crowds.
When the ride did work, its trains were modified to include only four of the planned five cars (likely, an effort to lighten the load and more reliably crest the top hat without a rollback) leading to a reported, dismal 800 person per hour capacity. The fifth car was restored to each train in 2003. But that May, each of the fifth cars was modified to remove decorative “dragster” spoilers, engines, and large Goodyear tires – reportedly, after one of the decorative rubber tires flew off of the train while it was running after park closure.
In the ride’s second season – on July 14, 2004 – the cable used to accelerate the train frayed during launch, spraying riders with sheared shards of metal. Four riders experienced cuts to their arms and faces. (The launch cable would also shred and spray the train with metal shrapnel on Xcelerator in 2009 [as seen in an on-ride video that – we warn you – is distressing to watch] and 2013, and again on Dragster in 2016.)
According to Tim O’Brien’s autobiography, Dick Kinzel: Roller Coaster King of Cedar Point Amusement Park, Kinzel called Top Thrill Dragster his “dumbest decision,” admitting that 50% of guests automatically aren’t interested in riding it. More to the point, Kinzel cited Dragster as the highest cost-per-rider in the park to operate, and one of the toughest rides to maintain…
In a 2005 “Motley Fool” segment on NPR, Kinzel called Top Thrill Dragster “the worst business decision” he ever made. Alluding to its runner-up, the Declassified Disaster: Disaster Transport, he stated, “Disaster Transport was sort of a laughing type thing, because the year we put it in we still had a great year financially so we could laugh about it, but with Top Thrill Dragster, that was a $25 million roller coaster. It just hasn’t worked up to our expectations. It’s taken two years. The way I feel right now, the worst decision we ever made was putting that coaster in. But sometimes, you have to roll the dice a little bit.”
A Roll of the Dice
Speaking of betting big on Intamin's more risky and intense rides, before we rejoin the story of Top Thrill Dragster, a brief aside to explore the continued story of Intamin…
In 2005, Six Flags retaliated in the Coaster Wars with its own Intamin Accelerator – Kingda Ka at its Great Adventure park in New Jersey. Kingda Ka officially captured the record for speed (128 mph) and height (456 feet), besting Dragster by 8 mph and 36 feet, respectively. It remains the tallest coaster on Earth (a fellow Intamin creation – Formula Rossa at Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World – is faster), but Cedar Point loyalists would insist we add an asterisk to the world's second of two stratocoasters, reminding you that it's "just" a Dragster lookalike.
(In true Intamin fashion, Kingda Ka operated for less than three weeks before a shredded launch cable closed the ride for two months of its opening summer; it was closed for three more months after being struck by lightning in 2009 – an incident some expected would ground the troublesome ride permanently.)
Inherent in their push for innovation, Intamin’s had several other high-profile starts and stops over the years. Dragster’s follow-up – 2007’s multi-launch, more-than-vertical, bucking, wild Maverick at Cedar Point – had its opening delayed by weeks when testing revealed that one of the ride’s inversions exerted more forces than expected, necessitating its removal and replacement. (A weirdly amateurish mishap in the age of computer modeling, especially because anyone watching the point-of-view rendering that includes the heartline roll in question could tell you that it looks like it could break a neck.)
In 2010, Intamin produced their second (and to date, final) 300-foot gigacoaster. Located at Kings Dominion in Virginia, Intimidator 305 is best understood as a fusion of Millennium Force (with its iconic first drop and soaring elements) and Maverick (with its slaloming turns, compact layout, and “bucking” directional changes).
But yet again, Intamin failed to predict that that ride’s first manuever – a giant, 270-degree helix entered at 90 mph – would cause discomfort in riders, including frequent G-force-induced grayouts and even blackouts. A stop-gap fix saw brakes installed down the length of the ride’s 300-foot drop during the inaugural season (allegedly reducing the ride’s top speed from 90 mph to 75), and a complete removal and reprofiling of the helix that winter
Just as Intimidator was opening at Kings Dominion, Cedar Point debuted an Intamin-made flume ride called Shoot the Rapids. But in 2013, a boat slid backwards down the ride’s lift, flipping upside down at the bottom and trapping seven riders underwater in over-the-shoulder restraints. (Onlookers who leapt into the flume to right the boat saved all seven lives. Shoot the Rapids closed in 2015.)
Though neither Cedar Fair nor Six Flags has worked with Intamin since, Universal made a high profile gamble on the company with back-to-back installations. The results – Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and the Jurassic World VelociCoaster – are pretty inarguably the kind of customized, personality-filled, intense, technological, and innovative coasters that scream “Intamin.” But particularly the former (with a record seven launches, hold-less track switch, on-ride audio, and two vertical drop tracks) had a standard Intamin inaugural summer of massive downtime, including nearly daily delayed starts, and entire days of non-operation.
Several notable Intamin rides – like Australia’s Tower of Terror II, Six Flags Magic Mountain’s Green Lantern: First Flight, Kings Dominion’s Lost Legend: Volcano – The Blast Coaster, and Cedar Point’s Wicked Twister have closed in the last five years. Maybe occasional technical difficulties, delayed openings, and unexpected intensity are to be expected when you play with cutting-edge technologies, custom creations, and extreme statistics… but none of it could excuse the event that may be remembered as Dragster’s end.
Top Thrill Dragster is certainly unique among coasters for its layout (essentially, an oval) and its queue (which is entirely set inside the ride’s footprint. Guests pass under Dragster’s launch track and into a concrete corral of back-and-forth metal stanchions with the ride zooming past to the east, then returning on the west. If its purpose is to make you feel that you’re a part of the pit crew caught in the action of a high-speed race, it works.
But on August 15, 2021 around 4:30 PM, an L-shaped metal bracket about the size of a hand flew off of the accelerating train as it was launched. Later determined to be a “proximity flag plate” (a sensor attached to the train’s rear left side to communicate its position to the ride’s operation system), that bracket struck a woman in the queue in the head. (Beyond being subjected to a serious brain injury, her family has not shared details about the victim's state.)
Ohio’s Department of Agriculture (the body responsible for certifying rides at Ohio’s amusement parks and fairs) conducted an investigation not into the cause of the accident, but into whether or not Cedar Point itself had violated state laws in the operation of the ride.
Though Cedar Point conceded that it had not performed its usual “standard overhaul procedure” on the ride in 2021 (since the procedure had been conducted in 2020 when the ride ended up operating only lightly due to COVID-19), the park reported that it had consulted with Intamin to conduct a limited overhaul of the ride.
In February 2022, the Ohio Department of Agriculture concluded that Cedar Point had not violated any rules in its operation or maintenance of the ride, and that – pending repairs and addressing “signs of wear” – Top Thrill Dragster would be cleared to re-open. However, the same day, Cedar Point’s website was updated to state that they had made the decision that Top Thrill Dragster would not operate at all during the 2022 season.
Clearly, Top Thrill Dragster didn’t end the Coaster Wars (or to that point, Kinzel’s preoccupation with stuffing Cedar Fair parks with bare steel thrills), but it certainly marked a topping out of the genre. Though Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks continue to prioritize thrill rides (and often invent wildly specific “records” that each installation breaks), the Coaster Wars have cooled… and arguably, that actually lets guests be the priority over marketing bluster and ultra-extreme ride prototypes designed to lure iron-stomached teens at the expense of families.
Don’t misunderstand: Top Thrill Dragster is an absolute icon; a “Bucket List” experience; a record-breaking, must-see, life-changing 17 seconds of adrenaline-packed acceleration that literally defines Cedar Point’s skyline. But it’s also an albatross around the park’s neck. Like any roller coaster, it won’t last forever… Approaching 20 years of technical problems, even ardent fans couldn’t help but wonder if it would be worth bringing the ride out of mothballs in 2023, or if a two decade shelf life is plenty for a ride so defined by wear and tear… What would Cedar Point be without Top Thrill Dragster? It seemed we may find out…
Though it’s clear that Top Thrill Dragster will spend the 2023 season Standing But Not Operating (SBNO), the 400-foot ride – one of just two stratocoasters on Earth – seems to have been granted a second lease on life. Consider it a poetic inversion to the fate of fellow ultra-extreme Coaster Wars behemoth, record-breaker, and Lost Legend: Son of Beast, which was similarly given the green light to re-open after a rider injury, but was kept SBNO in plain sight for years… until it was finally demolished.
Somehow, it seems that Kinzel’s Coaster Wars equivalent of the A-Bomb won’t meet the same fate… but as to what this “new and reimagined ride experience” will entail? Our best advice for now is simple: “Arms down, head back, and hold on…”