Roller coasters have long been synonymous with adrenaline-pumping thrills and heart-stopping excitement. For nearly the last 50 years, launched roller coasters have offered the ability to thrill coaster riders with intense acceleration and unparalleled speed in ways, unlike any traditional coaster. Let’s delve into the captivating history of launched roller coasters, tracing their evolution from humble beginnings to the cutting-edge marvels of modern engineering.
The First Launch Coasters
The beginning of the launch coaster dates to 1977 when two well-known coaster manufacturers developed the first launch coasters. The first manufacturer, Schwarzkopf, developed a shuttle launch coaster that utilized a counterweight launch system. This system used a large weight that would be dropped, and the cable connected to this weight would essentially catapult the coaster train along the track.
The first installation of this type of coaster was King Kobra at Kings Dominion, and the launch propelled the train at a speed of just over 50 mph. This was the first traditional shuttle loop model where the train would be launched through a single loop and up an incline before falling back down and completing the course in reverse. While this launch technology isn’t widely used today, the original Shuttle loop coaster formerly known as King Kobra still operates as Katapul at Hopi Hari in Brazil.
Arrow Dynamics developed its own launch coaster in 1977. This coater is like the shuttle loop model that Schwarzkopf had developed; however, it utilizes an electric winch motor system that pushes the trains from an elevated platform and down a hill. The drop allows gravity to help drive the train through a single loop and up a hill to a second platform. The same process is then completed in reverse. Unlike the Schwarzkopf model, this Arrow launched loop model requires the help of gravity to get the trains through the course. Only 3 installations of this coaster model are still operating today including Sidewinder at Elitch Gardens in Colorado.
Schwarzkopf continued to be a leader in the development of launch technology. Shortly after the development of its counterweight launch, the company developed a flywheel launch. In this type of launch, a wheel is spun at a very high speed and is attached to a cable that forces the coaster train along the track. This new technology would be used to debut a new type of shuttle loop starting off with MonteZOOMa's Revenge at Knott's Berry Farm in 1978. This new model launched riders from 0 to 55 mph in a matter of seconds reaching slightly higher speeds than the prior systems. Though it is currently closed for a massive refurbishment, MonteZOOMa’s Revenge is the oldest shuttle loop coaster in its original location.
Schwarzkopf was not finished trying to improve the roller coaster launch. In 1982 the manufacturer developed a coaster called Wiener Looping for the park Prater in Vienna, Austria. It currently operates at Selva Mágica in Mexico as Bullet. This model of shuttle coaster utilizes a friction tire launch where pairs of tires are spun in opposite directions while a fin on the train is pushed between the tires. Many other coasters would utilize friction tire technology for years to come. One notable use of this type of launch is The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Islands of Adventure.
Unfortunately, after the development of Wiener Looping, no new launch coasters would be constructed for over a decade. Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon (now named Star Wars: Hyperspace Mountain) opened as the first full circuit coaster to feature a launch at Disneyland Paris (then Euro Disneyland) opened in 1995. It utilizes flywheel technology. However, as the new millennium approached, coaster launch technology would improve and advance significantly.
Then came the introduction of the Electromagnetic Launch System...