Top Thrill 2

Things are getting weird in the roller coaster world...

Once upon a time, fans knew their coaster manufacturers forward and backward. Arrow. B&M. Intamin. Premier. RMC. But increasingly, something very unusual is spreading across the world of thrill rides: "Mutant Coasters". These unique hybrids are literal fusions of new and old; of wood and steel; and even of multiple ride manufacturers whose dissimilar pieces are literally bolted together in plain sight. Like a chemical reaction, these unlikely combinations together create something entirely unique.

Today, we'll take a look at six wild case studies of mutated rides, made of unusual pieces that build into one complete whole. We think you'll agree that in most of these cases, we're lucky to have seen what happens when these parts hybridized into something new...

1. Phantom's Revenge

Image: Kennywood, via Detre Library & Archives, Sen. John Heinz History Center

In the 1980s and '90s, it was the rare amusement park that did not include an "Arrow multi-looper." Developed by then-leading steel coaster manufacturer Arrow, the "multi-looper" model send riders swirling through a complex layout of double loops, double corkscrews, batwings, and more. From Six Flags Great Adventure's "Great American Scream Machine" to Kings Dominion's "Anaconda"; Adventuredome's "Canyon Blaster" to Kings Island's "Vortex", these extra-large loopers are either treasured classics that need preserved... or too-big-for-their-britches leftovers, depending on whom you ask.

One of the largest was Kennywood's "Steel Phantom." On board, riders climbed a 160 foot lift hill, providing incredible views of the steel factory-filled valleys and quarries that the elevated Pittsburg-area park is built around. Uniquely, Steel Phantom's first drop wasn't its largest. Instead, it was just a tease. The ride's second drop then dove over the edge of a cliff, 225 feet into a ravine. From there, the coaster jerked its way through four inversions: a vertical loop, a batwing, and a corkscrew. Many Arrow multi-loopers feel rough and rickety in a world now filled with Intamins and B&Ms, but Steel Phantom was particularly violent, banging riders heads against over-the-shoulder restraints in its wild race through the ravine.

Arrow's lattice supports and Morgan's round column supports coexist on one ride. Image: Kennywood

Just nine years into its life, Steel Phantom was retired. Kennywood called in a different ride manufacturer, Morgan, to make some changes. Morgan's portfolio is small, but pretty mighty, specializing in airtime-filled hypercoasters like Worlds of Fun's "Mamba," Dorney Park's "Steel Eel," and the coaster that almost beat Millennium to the 300-foot height limit, Nagashima Spa Land's "Steel Dragon 2000." Basically, Morgan preserved what worked about Steel Phantom (the lift and first two drops, including the iconic cliff dive) and started from scratch from there.

The ride re-opened in 2001 as "Phantom's Revenge"... essentially, a brand new coaster. The modified ride is 200 feet longer, drops 3 feet farther, and doesn't have any inversions or over-the-shoulder restraints. In fact, Phantom's Revenge is regarded as one of the best hypercoasters on Earth. But for those who know to look for it, you can see not only where the old Arrow track is fused to the differently-designed Morgan track, but where the ride's supports change from Arrow's lattice design to Morgan's round support columns (above), creating a literal hybrid mutant ride! (Even the park's Nanocoaster souvenir got the mixed-up supports right!)

2. Lightning Rod

Image: Dollywood

Anyone who calls themselves a coaster fan knows the transformative power of Rocky Mountain Construction – the company whose I-Box track has turned many overbuilt, painful, '90s wooden coasters into massively popular modern steel headliners. But don't forget that RMC also offers another kind of industry-altering track technology: Topper Track. Essentially adding a thick, steel "box" running rail to layered wood, enthusiasts tend to agree that the four rides built from-scratch using RMC's Topper Track do count as a wooden coasters... even if they can do things that traditional wooden roller coasters of the past could not...

Opened in 2016, Dollywood's Lightning Rod did what many thought was impossible by combining Topper Track and an uphill LSM launch. Yep, the world's first launched wooden roller coaster. Lightning Rod was an engineering marvel... but it was also a prototype. The ride quickly became known for its unreliability, spending days, weeks, and even months at a time not operating. All the while, fans watched from the midway as RMC engineers seemed to make small and large alterations to the lift, trains, launch motors, and more, running substantial tests. 

Where steel meets wood again. Image: Coaster101

Ultimately, the solution they decided on happened in the 2020 - 2021 off-season, when approximately 57% of the ride's track – including the launch – was swapped from RMC's wooden Topper Track to steel I-Box track. You can even see where the two track types meet just outside of the ride's station and again just before the final brake run, above. (The other section of track that remained wood is far out in the hills where the ride takes place.)

That makes Lightning Rod the first RMC to be "RMC'ed!" And more to the point, it makes the Dollywood ride perhaps the first true "hybrid" roller coaster on Earth, with some wood track and some steel track – a phenomenon we explored here on Theme Park Tourist! (Fusions of steel and wood look likely to continue with GCI's new steel "Titan Track" being used on particularly problematic sections of wooden coasters.)

3. Drachen Fire

Image: Jeremy Thompson, Flickr (license)

It was one of the strangest roller coasters ever made... And weirdest of all, the Declassified Disaster: Drachen Fire wasn't actually built by more than one manufacturer... it just tried to pretend that it was.

Basically, in the early '90s, it was clear that the roller coaster field was changing quickly. Whereas Arrow had once dominated the field with its classic (and by modern standards, rickety) Double Loops, Corkscrews, mine trains, and multi-loopers, newcomers B&M and Intamin had launched onto the scene with increasingly ambitious projects that would shape the Coaster Wars to come. B&M's inverted masterpieces and sleek, smooth, four-across coasters were clearly the way forward, and suddenly, the once-leading Arrow found itself playing catch-up.

Image: SeaWorld Parks

As the story goes, Busch Entertainment (owners of Busch Gardens and SeaWorld) approached B&M with a proposal to add sister coasters to their Tampa Bay and Williamsburg parks. But with a calendar filled with requests, the young B&M could only produce one of the pair: Busch Gardens Tampa's Kumba. If Busch Gardens Williamsburg wanted a counterpart, it would need to shop around. Armed with plans for Kumba, Busch allegedly found a response to its request for proposal from Arrow, who offered to interpolate B&M's DNA into what they hoped would be their own relaunch.

And yep, 1992's Drachen Fire looked like a B&M, right down to the familiar round support columns, corkscrews, and "cobra roll" that would become B&M standards in the '90s... but it sure didn't feel like a B&M. Infamously rough, Drachen Fire was a misery-making "franken-coaster"; Arrow's best mimic of plans for Kumba, but remixed with the worst of Arrow's lingering multi-looper legacy. The ride was so notoriously painful that just two years after opening, one of its inversions was removed entirely. The ride closed forever after just six years. It was standing but not operating for three more before being "recycled" in 2002.  


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